Northwest tribes celebrate annual Canoe Journey
The cries rose up from Hollywood Beach yesterday in Port Angeles. Drums thumped and young girls danced. In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, more...
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
The cries rose up from Hollywood Beach yesterday in Port Angeles. Drums thumped and young girls danced. In the Strait of Juan de Fuca, more than 60 canoes circled gently, marking the end of the 2005 Canoe Journey.
Thousands greeted the weary travelers. They sang songs of welcome, some with tears in their eyes.
In the cheering crowd, members of the Snoqualmie tribe from Carnation stood on the beach, their smiles trying to mask disappointment. They were supposed to be part of this. They were supposed to come ashore with the other tribal canoes from all over the Northwest and end their journey in triumph.
Instead, gusty winds forced the Coast Guard to make a safety call yesterday morning. Several tribes, including the Snoqualmie, had to abandon their canoes in Jamestown on the last leg of their voyage.
The tribe's mood was dampened, but not their spirit. Their quest didn't begin when they pushed off in Fall City headed for Port Angeles two weeks ago. It started in the spring with a cedar log, a chisel and a dream to carve an ocean canoe.
"Our journey was to just get out here," said John Mullen, the Snoqualmie tribe's youth coordinator.
It tested their endurance and strength, he said. In the end, the real lesson was understanding what it means to be part of a tribal family.
Digging out a canoe from a cedar log was integral to a tribe's existence and community for generations, but the practice gradually disappeared over the past century. In 1989, a Quinault canoe racer named Emmett Oliver revived the tradition with the "Paddle to Seattle," in which Native Americans journeyed by canoe from the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island to Seattle for the Washington state centennial celebration.
Canoe journeys are now an annual event and are intended to connect participants to Native culture and stress discipline, sobriety, strength and teamwork. The destinations change yearly. Last year, thousands from Washington to Canada landed on Shell Beach, on Vancouver Island, B.C.
Native protocol requires paddlers to request permission to come ashore, and the welcoming celebration lasts for days. This year, the gathering is the largest ever, with paddlers coming from as far south as Oregon and as far north as St. Paul's Island, Alaska. The Lower Elwha tribe near Port Angeles is hosting the festivities through Saturday.
Eternal spirit of red cedar log
John Mullen stares at the red cedar log.
He studies its ridges, examines the lines stretching 39 feet before him. He and others have chipped away at it for hours, filling the damp May air with fragrant cedar.
Only two more months until the big journey to Port Angeles. Eight weeks to turn the rough timber into a sleek, solid ocean canoe — the first one the tribe has made in 64 years — that would be sturdier, deeper and hold more people than a river canoe.
The irony that Mullen is in charge of building this project, a feat worthy of his tribal ancestors, is not lost on him. Old classmates laugh when Mullen tells them he's the youth coordinator of the Snoqualmie Tribe. "You? A mentor?" they ask. They remember the street-fighting native kid, the one who was angry at the world, the one who felt that yelling was the only way to be heard.
Now, at 49, the rage has quelled, replaced by patience. Mullen sees himself in the lost youths who come to him searching for purpose.
"I tell them, 'Work on the canoe,' " he says. "Take part in the paddle journey. Find out what family really means."
The 900-year-old cedar log was donated to the tribe. Mullen calls it the "grandmother." Sometimes, he will sit beside it on his brother's property in Carnation, four miles from tribal headquarters. He leans in close and hears the whispers of his Snoqualmie ancestors who labored over similar canoes generations ago. They guide him.
So much work still remains. Mullen brushes the worry aside and hits a metal carving tool against the wood.
Tap, tap, tap.
The beat falls in sync with the rain.
Following the lead of the drum bearer
It's a cool June evening and a half-dozen people, young and old, gather under the white tent where the canoe is taking shape.
Thousands of cedar chips blanket the ground. A bow and stern have emerged; the sides are smooth and curved.
Everyone sits in a circle around a drum to sing sacred Snoqualmie songs. They rub tobacco on the drum to bless it and bend their heads in unison.
The tribal customs are carried out with precision and ease. But most of the people here aren't Snoqualmie.
Some hail from different tribes. Others, like Daniel Sturz, are non-natives.
"I'm just a white guy," says Sturz, 20, a college student from Preston.
All have found a community in what they call the "canoe family."
"I don't chase anybody away," Mullen says. "I don't care if they're pink with yellow polka-dots."
Many Northwest tribes formed these groups to prepare for the annual Canoe Journey after it was revived in 1989. The "families" meet all year to build canoes, learn tribal history and forge the bonds that will help them trust each other with their lives out on the water. They must work together smoothly, as one, when they make the two-week paddle to Port Angeles in late July. Snoqualmie's group started in 2002 and has grown to nearly 30 people. About half are 11 to 23 years old.
Jessy Lucas' tribal roots are with the Choctaw people of Oklahoma. But it's among the Snoqualmie tribe that the shy 20-year-old from Issaquah discovered a sense of place.
Sturz urged Lucas to attend the canoe meetings last year and the tribe welcomed him openly. Mullen noticed Lucas' musical talent and asked him to be the drum bearer for the canoe family.
The drum bearer is a leader who sets the pace and rhythm of the beats. No one can leave the circle without his permission. Lucas took two weeks to decide before agreeing to the responsibility. Now, as the sun starts to dip below the fields of grass, the drumming begins. Lucas strikes the taut elk skin, one-one, two-two, slowly first, then faster. The others follow. They sing loudly in the tribal language of Lushootsheed.
In the background, the canoe pulses with their vibrations.
Where everyone feels connected, like family
At 5-foot-4, Mullen is usually the shortest guy in the room.
"Except when the little ones [children] are around," he says, and lets out a thundering laugh.
That laugh is Mullen's signature. It travels wherever he goes, bounces against the canvas panels inside the tent, diffuses through the air.
Today, Mullen's laugh ricochets off the canoe as he and five others line up on one side to flip it over.
The milestone marks the start of the last phase of the canoe's construction. Now they need to dig out the interior, steam it with lava rocks for 48 hours to stretch the wood, and fit the inside with seats for a dozen or more paddlers.
Eighteen days remain.
Traces of fatigue line Mullen's dark eyes. The past few weeks have been demanding. He's been putting in 12- to 14-hour days, organizing the trip, meeting with the canoe family, working on "the grandmother."
Mullen graduated from Issaquah High School illiterate, he says, and learned how to read at 19 from his wife. For 17 years, he chipped out the inside of cement trucks.
Now he tells the teenagers: "Work with your brains, not your backs." Both Mullen's parents are Snoqualmie, but he grew up knowing little about his heritage. He never felt like he belonged anywhere, he says. He filled the void by drinking, fighting and carrying his anger like a sword.
Ten years ago, he connected with his roots when his brother asked him to drum. When he picked up the instrument, he felt a pull. "It was time to learn," he says.
Mullen's job now requires full use of his mind — and his heart. The youths in the canoe family call him at odd hours, desperate to talk. Sometimes he takes them to Snoqualmie Falls where they stand, silent, listening to the rush of the tumbling cascade.
Water heals, Mullen says. That's what you learn out in the canoe.
"There's that feeling," he says. "That feeling of complete trust. You're flowing down the river with the others, you see the wildlife, you hear the birds."
"You feel one another breathe."
Everyone is connected, he says. Like a family.
Respecting elders, even when it hurts
It's four days before the big trip and the canoe isn't finished. There are still no seats; the inside is rough and the outside is unpainted and not yet marked with the tribal bear symbol.
The group will travel in a river canoe up the Snoqualmie River first.
Then they'll make the second part of the journey to Port Angeles in another tribe's ocean canoe.
Mullen stays positive.
"You can't push a good thing," he says. "Our grandmother is slowing us down for a reason."
They'll take her out on Lake Sammamish when she's ready, he says.
Tonight, more than a dozen canoe family members meet near the canoe tent to talk about what's on their minds. Everyone gets to be heard. Those who speak hold a "talking stick."
Mullen begins by passing it around.
Someone brings up the case of a teenager caught drinking during last summer's canoe journey to Vancouver Island. The offense is serious; the canoe journeys require a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle.
The tribal elders told Mullen that the boy shouldn't be allowed on the canoe this year, even though he's one of the strongest pullers.
Many in the circle disagree.
The stick is handed to the teenager, but he declines. He sits back, arms crossed. His mother pleads his case.
"The water and the cedar is our strength," she says. "The canoe is where I learned to trust each and every one of you with my life. That's what I want to teach my kids."
The stick returns to Mullen. He can't go against the tribal elders, he says. But he wants to hear "what the young man thinks." The boy says nothing. Shortly after, the circle breaks up.
Later, Mullen is sympathetic but says the boy won't go.
The elders must be respected, he says.
Their voices rise together
The canoe journey has begun.
Yesterday's launch in Fall City, King County, turned out to be an adventure. The river canoe capsized on the Snoqualmie River and got wedged under a tree limb. After some creative maneuvering, they dislodged it with hardly a scratch.
The plan for today is to paddle from Duvall to Monroe. Later, the group will pack up and head by car and ferry to the Suquamish reservation near Bainbridge Island to continue the water journey with that tribe, camping at different points along the way.
At the boat launch in Duvall, Buzz Cloud, 15, and Ruben Peters, the tribe's drug-and-alcohol counselor, climb into the canoe. Lucas, the drum bearer, sits in the middle. Mullen steers from the stern. They push off. Their paddles move in unison, a quiet swish that cuts the water. The sunlight warms their skin.
Lucas starts to sing a Snoqualmie canoe song in the Lushootsheed language. His rich bass fills the sky.
Soon, the others join. "We're here in peace," they sing. "Not for war."
Their voices rise together. It is the only sound for miles.
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or email@example.com