The Revival of the Family Canoe

Family Canoe

Images from the 2018 Paddle to Puyallup

2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the celebrated Tribal Canoe Journey, an unsurpassed annual event that began with the inaugural Paddle to Seattle in 1989. An increasingly influential event, the Canoe Journey is a revitalization of the traditional method of transportation for the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast and is a highly significant cultural experience for all participants, most notably, Indigenous youth.

The glwa, or ocean-going canoe, is probably the single most important aspect of Northwest Coast culture, and certainly for the Coast Salish First Nations whose traditional territories lie along the shores of the Salish Sea, including the Straight of Georgia, Straight of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. The glwa was once the lifeblood of these Indigenous peoples, providing the means for ocean fishing—their primary food source—and enabling connection between wide-spread family tribes. Thanks to the Tribal Canoe Journeys, canoes are arguably the vehicles that have carried Indigenous families, communities and cultures back to strength in the 21st century.

Prior to 1846, the Indigenous territories of the Salish Sea were undivided. Tribal families on both sides of the sea moved freely across the ocean, fishing together, gathering together for celebrations and family events, and sharing their territories without disruption or discord. When the boundary between countries was laid by government in 1846, laws were imposed that saw some Coast Salish people, now from British Columbia, arrested for fishing using long-standing traditional methods with their families in Washington.

For the W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) Nation, on Vancouver Island’s east coast, the upcoming 2019 Paddle to Lummi Tribal Canoe Journey has particular significance. For thousands of years, the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) of Washington and the Saanich, celebrated life together on opposite shores of the Salish Sea; the Canoe Journey provides an opportunity for these families to come together once again and, in solidarity, do all they can to call attention to and help save the deteriorating health of their beloved shared waters—and to share with their children and grandchildren their traditional ways.

“Despite persistent colonial efforts to stamp out Indigenous cultures and communities… today there is a renaissance of Indigenous traditions and values in large part because of the Tribal Canoe Journey.”
 ~ Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St'at'imc), Canadian Geographic

Canoe families are generally made up of a mixture of tribes from the same Nation and regular family members—they become one family as they pull and paddle their canoe along the journey—a feat of true teamwork and athleticism that can sometimes take several weeks to a month. The important details of origin, lineage, history and journey come to life in the stories of these families that crisscross the Salish Sea, uniting them across invisible borders.

Frank Brown, Heiltsuk from Bella Bella, first dreamt up the canoe journey when commissioned by the mayor to provide a “native element” for Expo '86 in Vancouver. The idea came to life in 1989, when the late Emmett Oliver of the Quinault Nation organized the Paddle to Seattle to ensure native representation during Washington state’s centennial.

Thirty years later, the canoe families, their songs, dances and communities have come back with great force. Last year, over 100 canoe families participated in the Paddle to Puyallup. (Watch the video.)

Paddle to Puyallup

Upon arrival at their destination, canoe families ask permission to land, singing songs in their Native languages, announcing that they come in peace. During the last week of the journeys, traditional protocol—the sharing of songs, dances and gifts—lasts for days. A strictly drug- and alcohol-free event, families with children of all ages are encouraged to attend.

The importance of instilling the ancient protocol of the Canoe Journey into the lives of Indigenous youth is perhaps explained best by Julian Brave NoiseCat:

“In an age of digital relationships, it brings families together to celebrate and work through troubles. It reintroduces people to water in an elemental way, reminding us that water sustains life…if we learn to live and work together again, the resurgence of Indigenous values and teachings just might carry transformative potential for a world hurtling toward ecological disaster.”

GreenAngels is dedicated to helping the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation acquire a family canoe, in order to participate in the 2019 Paddle to Lummi. Please donate here.

Adam Olsen, MLA for Sidney/North Saanich and member of the W̱SÁNEĆ, W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip) Nation, confirms:

“this would not be a stranded asset, but rather an investment in our culture over the long term—a canoe our children will travel in together.”

How you can help

Please join us in supporting the  W̱SÁNEĆ Nation and their families. Donations can be made via their GoFundMe page. Make a donation.

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