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Canoe Journey: An Introduction

Nearly 120 canoes from tribes and First Nations across the Salish Sea and Pacific Northwest participated in the Power Paddle to Puyallup in this year’s tribal canoe journey hosted by the Puyallup Tribe July 27th through August 4th. Tribal canoe journeys are time for many Indigenous communities to come together to share food, songs, and other cultural traditions  across the region.

Visit to Swinomish for landing

Participating tribal communities along Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia’s coast serve as a landing site along the route to the final canoe journey host site. On July 23rd the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community hosted the landing at their reservation, established in 1855 by the Treaty of Point Elliott, along the Swinomish Channel on Fidalgo Island in Western Washington. Washington Sea Grant’s Social Scientist Melissa Watkinson (Chickasaw) and Graduate Student Fellow Sonni Tadlock (Colville) attended the landing at Swinomish to learn about the role of canoe journey in tribal community health. They share their insights and personal reflections about the day in this Coastal Connections blog post.

Role in Community Health

In addition to reviving a cultural tradition across Northwest and Coast Salish communities, the annual Tribal Canoe Journey provides benefits to the health and well-being of tribal communities. The importance  of community health is reflected in this year’s theme: “Honoring our Medicine.” Bill Sterud, Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman, stated that “our elders have always taught us that water is a powerful medicine– a life-giving force that sustains, heals, and protects us. And as we see with Canoe Journey, where more than 15,000 will gather on our shores to greet the canoes, the water also provides connections between Native peoples and the land.” Tribal canoe journeys have also been a space for addressing health disparities in tribal communities by providing opportunities for youth engagement and empowerment. Starting In 2005, the Suquamish Tribe and the Port Gamble S’Kallam Tribe partnered with University of Washington researchers from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute with the aim to “build resilient, substance-free Native youth by reconnecting them to their roots.” Through a yearlong curriculum, the “Healing of the Canoe” project worked to address challenges among youth that have come from centuries of trauma within tribal communities with teachings of “different cultural values and life skills, while sprinkling in drug and alcohol information.” In 2015, the project found that impacts of the study led to decreased substance use, and increased hope, optimism, and self-efficacy among participants.

Personal Reflections

As an indigenous scholar working predominantly within a Western Science setting, I view my work as bearing both the blessing and the burden of ensuring that indigenous voices and values are respected and reciprocated in the research that I engage in. Much of this means that I have the responsibility of showing up, listening, being present, and nurturing relationships with tribal communities and the environments that indigenous peoples thrive within. Attending the Power Paddle to Puyallup Canoe Journey landing at Swinomish was no different. I met and spent time with community partners, research collaborators, and family members while at the Canoe Journey landing in Swinomish; being present as a Native person, and as a scientist – these two aspects of my identity are not one-dimensional on their own, but each are central to the ways in which I learn and contribute knowledge in the spaces that I get to work in.

– Melissa Watkinson (Chickasaw), WSG Social Scientist

I feel so blessed to be a welcomed guest in Coast Salish territories, I also feel honored to witness the resiliency of their culture. As a Native Scholar you read about efforts being done to improve health in Indian Country but nothing can compare to showing up and being a part of it yourself. This year was my first time attending Journeys, watching the boats arrive in the chanel, carrying friends and stories from other places. It was so good to see so many people I know, to say hello and catch up. You could feel the love that surrounded the event, families connecting for the first time in a long time, the laughter and pride were palpable. I am blessed to be surrounded by this strong culture, blessed to infuse all these things into my work. Being a researcher at a large University can be isolating but it’s the desire to build and maintain community that allows for work like this to continue, I admire all the young Native Scholars out there, and all the communities that support them. Thank you to Washington Sea Grant for welcoming me in to theirs.

– Sonni Tadlock (Colville), WSG Fellow, Swinomish Staff

Nourishing Engagements

Our time at the landing at Swinomish ended with helping to serve food and share a meal hosted by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, who generously shared salmon, fry bread, and salads with their guests. We departed back to Seattle as protocol (sharing of songs and dances) continued at the landing site until well-past midnight. Engaging through event participation with the Indigenous communities with whom we work is a good practice for building trust and relationships –a principle for community-based participatory research and other work of Washington Sea Grant. Particularly as Indigenous scholars, we find that opportunities to be in community and sharing First Foods with one another is what nourishes our minds and bodies to thrive in this work. Lummi Nation will host the 2019 Tribal Canoe Journey, and we’re already looking forward to the opportunity to reconnect with friends, family, and community partners.

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“Our elders have always taught us that water is a powerful medicine– a life-giving force that sustains, heals, and protects us. And as we see with Canoe Journey, where more than 15,000 will gather on our shores to greet the canoes, the water also provides connections between Native peoples and the land.”

Bill Sterud

Puyallup Tribal Council Chairman