This piece originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, republished here with permission.
On Sunday, July 30, as many as 120 Indigenous, First Nation, and Alaska Native canoe families made the journey from their homelands across the ancestral highways of the sea, just as their ancestors had since time immemorial, to gather at Alki Beach. Many elders were scattered across the beach in their lounge chairs with their toes in the sand, smiling out at the water, welcoming each canoe family as the canoes rowed in. Large families sat together under the sun, with the kids playing in the sand or banging on their drums. Each canoe family cheered as they got closer to the beach, celebrating their long journey. They lined up next to one another, waiting to ask permission to come ashore to share the medicine of songs and dances of healing with this year’s host tribe, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.
In 1989, the Centennial Accord was signed by Washington’s governor and the state’s federally recognized tribes in a move to affirm the sovereignty of each Native Nation and an agreement for future government-to-government collaboration. As part of the 100th anniversary of Washington Statehood that year, the Native Nations carved traditional canoes and paddled from the Suquamish tribal lands on Agate Pass to Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park in what was called the “Paddle to Seattle.” This inspired the cultural revitalization of canoe culture, which connects many Native peoples to cultural carving and art practices, values, traditions, and their neighboring relatives and kinship relations. This revival could be seen in Sunday’s celebration and ceremony on Alki Beach.
“This is a resurgence right here at Alki,” said Romajean Thomas, a Muckleshoot citizen. “We’re gonna do a ceremony out in the open. Until 1978, we couldn’t do ceremony. It was illegal, so to do it loudly and proudly, it matters to me in a way that I can’t even express.”
Thomas is referring to The Department of Interior’s 1883 Code of Indian Offenses, which made it illegal to practice traditional cultural and spiritual practices. It wasn’t until Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 that the federal government began to walk back those policies so that ceremonies and spiritual practices, like the annual canoe journey, could be practiced.
Unfortunately, the ceremony was canceled from 2020 to 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, Amanda Rae Hicks, who is Nisqually, Turtle Mountain, and Hawaiian, among many others, lost loved ones to COVID-19 and addiction, so for her, this year’s canoe journey is both celebratory and a critical traditional healing experience.
Hicks’ son and daughter were both canoe pulling this year, which she says almost brought her to tears with pride, but they also lost some young members of their canoe family to addiction during the time the canoe journey was canceled.
“I’ve been emotional this whole journey,” Hicks said. “It’s tough, but it’s all healing, you know, all the tears are good to get out. As long as we’re getting them out in a good way, this way, not drinking or drugging. Yeah, it means a lot.”
Hicks and her family aren’t alone in their loss. Participants say the canoe journey kept many people on the Red Road to sobriety and healing.
Before the canoe journey begins, there is a ceremony where each person promises to conduct themselves according to the 10 Rules of the Canoe, which require sobriety, respectfulness, and honoring the land and water. From connecting with ancestors and art when carving the canoe, to traditional lessons rowing on the water, to finally making it to land and asking permission to come ashore, to sharing a traditional meal, songs, and dances, each step is a ceremonial practice intended to breathe new life into each person, their traditions, and their connections to their ancestral lands and one another.
“The first time I got involved in gathering cedar, I felt like I was with the ancestors,” said John Daniels Jr., Muckleshoot Tribal Council treasurer. Daniels believes a spiritual awakening has been possible through the cultural revival of canoe culture and that cedar is central to that.
“We care for the canoes like they are one of us,” Daniels said. “The cedar is really important to our culture.”
After arriving at the shores, a weeklong traditional potlatch ceremony is held on the host nation’s land, where the families enjoy song, dance, gifts, and shared meals provided by the host nation. Many of the canoe families are camped at Muckleshoot powwow grounds for the week, and when they’re not participating in the canoe protocol, cedar remains central. Hicks learned to weave cedar baskets from Hazel Pete, a Chehalis citizen and master weaver who was celebrated for keeping the tradition alive. Hicks, who wore a beautiful and stylish cedar-weaved fedora hat, plans to work on some weaving projects with anyone who is around and wants to learn while she is at Muckleshoot.
Equally important to the Muckleshoot is being good stewards of their ancestral lands. “We are stewards of this land, so part of our relationship is with water, getting out in the water, seeing water quality, seeing seaweed quality, seeing wildlife quality, that’s part of our stewardship responsibility,” Thomas said.
He says the canoe journey draws in non-Native residents to learn more about the practice. Thomas believes the canoe journey sends a message to non-Native residents about the importance and history of their nation’s stewardship. A local woman asked Thomas’ father how she could be a good ally, and he explained that understanding, recognizing, and being a vocal supporter of the Native stewards of these lands is tremendously important. “That reciprocity and relationship can only be created with community,” Thomas said.
Hicks welcomes people to learn more about the traditional ways of the first people of Washington and the ceremony of canoe journey. “I think that if our traditional ways can heal us, they have the ability to heal any human,” Hicks said. “I had a non-Native come up to me and was like, ‘This is so beautiful, and healing,’ and she started crying, because they’re spiritual and they witnessed the work that’s going on.” But, according to Hicks, it’s important to understand that the canoe journey and everything that follows is a ceremony that should be respected, which means non-Native observers should stay off the beach near the canoes and out of the water near the canoes.
Thomas is proud of the work her nation put into this year’s canoe journey. “The stewardship, the camaraderie between our tribes, I just think all of it has been tremendously beautiful,” Thomas said. “We needed to come together in resilience, we need to come together in honor and reverence, because we’ve spent a lot of time in a pandemic and coming together in sadness. But to come together in such a beautiful way is a beautiful representation and reminding us that even in urban spaces, we can still engage.”