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Tribal Canoe Journeys: A Resurgence of Ancestral Waterways and Sovereignty

Writer Maia Wikler and filmmaker Alex Harris were invited by the Jefferson sisters to witness their nation host The Paddle to Lummi. This is the first of an ongoing series in collaboration with the Jefferson sisters, musically known as Thunderbirds Raised Her. 

Sqweshenet Tse Schelangen, “honoring our way of life,” or The Paddle to Lummi, is a tribal canoe journey through the Salish Sea to Lummi Nation, this year’s host, which took place from July 24 to 29. Tribal Canoe Journeys are an annual celebration of Indigeneity and ancestral waterways, hosted by different nations each year since 1989. As stated on the Paddle to Lummi 2019 website, Tribal Canoe Journey “holds special significance to Coast Salish Tribes as it truly honors and nourishes the unique relationships and connections with the land, water, and one another. ” 

Indigenous Nations have traveled the Salish Sea since time immemorial and continue to survive and thrive from all that it provides, both materially and spiritually. The connection to waterways is inextricable from a sense of identity. For thousands of years, Indigenous nations would visit one another for marriages, gatherings, trade, ceremonies on these ancestral waterways. But with the imposition of the colonial border, laws banning Indigneous spiritual practices, Treaties and the impacts of colonization, these traditions were severely impacted. Then, in the 1980s, traditions resurged. 1989, the Canoe Journey began with the “Paddle to Seattle” where there were only several canoes on shore. 

Now, 30 years later Canoe Journeys draws thousands of attendees and over 100 canoe families who paddle in celebration of culture and assertion of sovereignty. Some embark on month-long canoe journeys to reach the hosting grounds.  Each year, a different nation hosts the annual gathering on their territory. 

On July 24, canoes arrived at the landing beach at the Lummi Stommish Grounds, some traveled as far as northern British Columbia and Juneau, Alaska. The canoes were draped in cedar boughs, songs of ceremony and tradition reverberated over the water. With over one hundred canoes gathered on the shore, each person held up their paddle as a signal to request permission to come ashore. Each nation, asked permission in their language to join the celebration and protocol, many expressed hy’shqas [thanks] to the Creator, with hands lifted in gratitude. “We give thanks to the pullers who keep our sea, our ancestral highway alive,” an elder said. Some called the journey a celebration of resilience and sovereignty. Many expressed the Salish Sea as inseparable from their identity and collective nationhood, voicing unanimous commitments to protect the waters for generations to come. “This is medicine, not only for us but for our future, our children here. We are forever grateful for pulling our canoes in your waters. O’siem,” said a community member from Squamish Nation. 

This year’s themes decided by Lummi Nation were: Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the opioid crisis, children in foster care, and salmon. “Who would we be without salmon, salmon are our bloodline,” a community member explained while announcing the themes. Youth from several canoes covered their mouths with a red-painted handprint and children held signs that read, “I’m not next,” in a symbolic call for justice for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women. Once ashore, paddlers were greeted by Bill James, Tsi’li’xw, hereditary chief of Lummi Nation. After being welcomed ashore by the Lummi Nation, the 24-hour, 5-day protocol began. Protocol follows the tradition of the potlatch, which historically was a form of wealth redistribution. Gathered in Lummi’s big house, nations shared songs, tradition, storytelling, dancing and ceremony. Throughout the gathering, Lummi hosted over 8,000 people with feasts of wild salmon, fry bread, halibut, crab and shrimp. Tents covered Stommish Grounds, with families camped out under cedar trees.

“This is a celebration of how our ancestors lived and how we live today,” the emcee told the crowd, “The are testimonies that have provided our people over the generations with hope, healing and happiness.”

Indigenous Nations traveled  from around the world to attend the gathering in a show of solidarity as a united front.  A representative of the Papuan people of New Guinea, joined by six other fellow community members, told the crowd during the canoe landing, “You do not fight this fight alone.”

Hawaiians took to the floor of the big house for protocol, sharing their songs and dances, draping elders in leis and prayers. In response, one by one  each person in the big house raised their hands in the Mauna Kea symbol, a collective demonstration of solidarity. One of the community members told the crowd, “We are advocates of the sacred, hopefully today we can spread more healing and our prayers are answered.”

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This is the first of a story series in collaboration with Thunderbirds Raised Her, three youth Lummi and Assinboine sisters singers and songwriters. Their songs and lyrics give light and new meaning to ongoing fights for decolonization and justice. Thunderbirds Raise Her sing hope into the hearts of everyone who listens. The power of their music from an Indigenous youth-perspective has reached over one million people, watch their most popular performance to date,“America” here.