Thousands Attend Suquamish Tribe’s Hosting of the Annual Tribal Canoe Journey

If you hung out on Bainbridge Island this past weekend (July 28th, 29th, and 30th), you might have missed an amazing cultural activity taking place just off our Northwest shore – in nearby Suquamish.

The Suquamish Tribe played host to a growing tradition known as a Tribal Canoe Journey. On Friday and Saturday, the 2023 version unfolded when some 100-plus dugout canoes and 8,000 to 9,000 people shared the shore, just off the Suquamish public dock, and shared food, songs, dances and giveaways.

Canoe Journey 2023 images courtesy of The Suquamish Tribe - Sarah van Gelder Communications Manager
Canoe Journey 2023 images courtesy of The Suquamish Tribe – Sarah van Gelder Communications Manager

The Canoe Journey is a celebration of the indigenous peoples from across the Pacific Northwest, who travel from tribe to tribe, sharing tribal traditions, eventually ending up at a final tribal destination. If you happened to venture out early Sunday morning, you might have caught a glimpse of some of the long boats cutting through the waters off of Fay Bainbridge Park, heading from Suquamish to their final destination at Alki Point in West Seattle. There, representatives of the Suquamish Tribe, and many others on hand, eventually met up with members of the Muckleshoot Tribe.

Founded in 1989, the Canoe Journey has been held annually to bring together members of Pacific Northwest Indigenous nations from the coasts of Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. Members of some nations have used the event to revive traditional techniques of timber harvesting, making large, ocean-going canoes, and teaching canoe skills to new generations. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canoe Journeys for 2020 and 2021 were postponed.

Many families and teams travel in decorated canoes for this event and wear traditional regalia for celebrations. Some canoes are made of the traditional sacred cedar; others are made using more modern techniques and materials. Travelers often visit Native nations en route to the final host destination, which changes each year.

Darin Blaney, and his wife, Gail, and their family traveled by canoe from British Columbia, where they are members of the Tla’amin Tribe. They left their home July 19th before arriving in Suquamish on Friday, July 28th. “The reason we do this is to revive the culture – the dancing and drumming – for two or three weeks,” says Blaney, sitting on a chair behind one of his three dugout canoes. “We’re practicing what our ancestors did – use the ocean (in this case the Salish Sea or Puget Sound) as a highway.”

Blaney says the traditions that take place during the canoe journey are an “awakening of our spirit… This year we’re honoring the spirit of warriors that passed on.”

Canoe Journey 2023 images courtesy of Kevin Dwyer, Ed Stern, and Gary Davidson
Canoe Journey 2023 images courtesy of Kevin Dwyer, Ed Stern, and Gary Davidson

On Friday, Blaney, and hundreds of others arrived by canoe and were helped on shore by Sailors and Marines from Naval Base Kitsap and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, led by Captain John Hale. The volunteers assisted tribal members in lifting the ultra heavy canoes – most made from a single cedar tree trunk – to their “parking” spot in front of the Suquamish Tribe’s House of Awakened Culture, itself and impressive structure made from native timber.

According to Wikipedia, “These majestic vessels, crafted from a single log often hundreds of years old, all but disappeared early in this century. It is hard to explain why so little has been written about them, as they are probably the single most important aspect of Northwest Coast culture… the canoe was as important as the automobile is now to North America.”

As such, the Canoe Journey is a revival of the traditional method of transportation and is a significant cultural experience for all participants. The Canoe Journey as an event, dubbed the “Paddle to Seattle,” took place in 1989 as part of the 100th anniversary of Washington Statehood. That year, the state and indigenous governments signed the Centennial Accord, recognizing indigenous sovereignty. Fifteen Native nations participated in the Paddle to Seattle.

Since then the event has grown. Depending on the distance a family or team is traveling, the trip by canoe can take up to a month. On arrival at a designated destination, such as Suquamish, visiting canoe families ask formal permission of the hosts to land, sometimes speaking in their Native languages. A potlatch is celebrated, a sharing of songs, dances and gifts that lasts for days. The Canoe Journey is family-friendly, and drug- and alcohol-free.

During a visit on Saturday, tribes-people and non-tribal members, like ourselves, were treated to clams, oysters, crab, chicken and other foods and drinks, while being entertained by stories, as well as watching a wide assortment of dancing and drumming. A good time was had by all, as the tradition continued!

Sources: The Suquamish Tribe, Wikipedia, and The Island Wanderer. Photos Courtesy of The Suquamish Tribe, Poulsbo City Council Member Ed Stern, Island resident Gary Davidson and Kevin Dwyer 

For more info on the Suquamish Tribe visit: Next up is Chief Seattle Days, slated for Aug. 18-20.

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