Northwest Tribal Canoe Journey reconnects different nations

Traveling to Lummi tribe in Washington state recently was a coincidence that the 30th anniversary of Tribal Canoe Journey is slated to arrive this morning on Lummi beach in the Pacific Northwest.

The Lummi Nation says it expects 10,000 people and more than 100 canoes today. On arrival, visiting canoe families ask permission to land, often in their languages. Protocol is the sharing of songs, dances and gifts — lasts for days. The Canoe Journey is a family friendly, drug and alcohol-free event.

Tribal Canoe Journeys is a celebrated event for the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Indigenous Nations from the coast of Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington state participate every year. Canoe families travel in ocean-going canoes–some using modern canoe technology.

Many are majestic vessels, crafted from a single log often hundreds of years old, all but disappeared early in this century. “It’s probably the single most important aspect of Northwest Coast culture today” says our host Darrell Hillaire.

We drive by where all the canoes will land and go a little farther on to where his Mother was born, a small island to the west you can only access when the tide is out. “I was born on that island”, Darrell tells us as fishermen and crabbers start departing the island before the high tide starts in a few minutes–just as we touch the shore of the island ever so briefly before walking back across the straight.

Since 1989, a different Native Nation like Lummi hosts canoe pullers, support crews and other visitors from Alaska, British Columbia and Washington. Depending on distance, the trip can take up to a month by canoe.

Earlier this week a Facebook report by Zoltan Grossman, a professor from Evergreen State College, gave hints of the gathering just days ahead, “This morning starting at the 5:30 am high tide, 11 canoes launched at Squaxin Island for this year’s Tribal Journeys. The canoes were from Grand Ronde, Chinook, Warm Springs, Cowlitz, Chehalis, Muckleshoot, Nisqually, and the Portland Canoe Family. Tonight these 11 canoes will be staying at Nisqually, and later joining others as they paddle through the Salish Sea. It is always so heartening to see the youth involved in the Tribal Canoe Journeys, traveling the ‘highways of the ancestors’.”

We met our friend and guide Darrell Hillaire at the tribe’s Silver Reef Casino Resort for the restaurant’s lunch special. Turned out Darrell was at the same Oren Lyon’s honoring dinner in Syracuse a few weeks back thou we had never met before today. Darrell spoke highly of Oren’s commitment to helping out a lot of tribes in the US in all sorts of matters especially the impacts of climate change. Which the people of Lummi know well because of their long time survival on salmon.

The changes in climate are severe to these Pacific Northwest tribes because the water is warming and the salmon spawn at waters around 52 degrees F, and the water is already 67 degrees, so the salmon are confused. Instead of 40 million, it’s down to 7 million and that’s a lot of tribes squabbling some on what’s left, “So this particular Tribal Journey means so much that we are hosting–because much of the salmon come to these rivers to spawn for generations.”

Checking my facts and memory with Darrell he wrote back, “Gary, there are many streams and rivers with salmon spawning. There are many salmon species too. I’m going to presume you’re asking about the Fraser River Sockeye salmon. The Sockeye salmon is prolific and caught by many of the tribes from throughout our Salish Territory. Last year they had approximately 12 million sockeye. This year the return is minimal. There may be only one day of fishing.”

It seems reductive to call Darrell Hillaire a playwright, given how much work he has done in his life on behalf of the Lummi Nation, and for Lummi youth in particular. Darrell has served as a coach, mentor, teacher, and leader for the Lummi Nation for more than thirty years. He has served on community boards, on the Lummi Indian Business Council, and as Chair of the Lummi Nation. He founded the visionary Lummi Youth Academy in 2008. Which house youth adjacent the school so those with family issues have a safe place to live while attending both grammar and high school.

His great-grandfather is featured in almost every important photograph of the Lummi from the 1920s. In recent years, Hillaire discovered the power of writing, producing plays, and making TV and now his life has opened a whole new and unexpected act. Though he is still passionate about educating Lummi Youth, he has chosen an additional classroom—the stage.

Here is a quote from one of Darrell’s Children of the Setting Sun Productions, from a young woman participating in today’s landing on Stommish Grounds. “The Tribal Canoe Journey is exactly what we need. We learn about the ocean again. How to travel on the ocean is basically something we’ve lost these last 100’s of years; like we work on revitalizing our languages. It’s like a mandate from the ancestors. I’m in love with this canoe, this is something that holds everything that we are–and how it connects between now and then and allows us to go forward.”

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