These days, as you wander around Puget Sound–also called the Salish Sea–you might spot a sight not seen in a hundred years: groups of native canoes–huge cedar dugouts, being paddled by crews of local Native Americans and their friends. I have seen such waterborne gatherings a number of times in recent months, traveling along between headlands as I look off the deck of a ferry, or pulling into shore as I pause in far-flung places like Port Townsend or Indianola.
Canoe culture was THE culture around here for millennia but time and the arrival of American pioneers ended it. The tribes were nearly wiped out by diseases brought by the newcomers, by alcohol, and by government policies against native culture.
Fortunately, times have changed once again and what was in decline is now resurgent. Every year, dozens of tribes around the Northwest launch canoes carrying what are termed “canoe families.” These groups of dedicated “pullers,” as paddlers are called, practice the art of canoe travel in their local villages and towns, and then participate in an annual “Canoe Journey” in which all tribal canoes converge on one or another of the region’s coastal villages for a festive gathering of song, dance, feasting, and camping.
Members of canoe families swear by them as a positive and uplifting common effort, one that brings the satisfaction of accomplishing arduous and sometimes dangerous journeys over challenging waters and even the open ocean.
This year, the big event was the Paddle to Quinault. Canoe families converged on the remote Pacific Coast town of Taholah, Washington for the festivities, coming by water from places as distant as the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and the Bella Coola reservation in British Columbia.
Next up, around here, is the Salmon Homecoming celebration in Seattle on September 20 and 21, complete with canoe welcoming ceremony. I think I’ll be attending.