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I’m not sure I’d be the person I am today if it wasn’t for tribal journeys.
The 2012 Paddle to Squaxin Island was my first journey. Before that, I had tagged along with my parents for other years, going to protocols of other tribal journey-hosting communities. I was sixteen years old when I pulled my first journey, something that generations before me may not be able to say. Now, the children of our coastal communities are growing up in the canoes, and teenage pullers, like myself, have grown up into carvers and skippers. We get this opportunity to live our canoe culture because leaders before us made sure that canoe culture would never die.
Stephanie Masterman (Tlingit) sits in the center of the canoe waring a purple life jacket and holding her paddle during the Power Paddle to Puyallup 2018. Photo courtesy of Chris Stearns (Navajo)
Up and down the Pacific Coast, Indigenous people have been traveling by canoe for millennia. What was a daily part of our lives was restricted or outright outlawed by the U.S. and Canadian governments in the twentieth century. Canoes were the way of life for coastal tribes, and we had been cut off from living our culture. It would be over a hundred years before Northwest Coast, Coast Salish, and other tribes along the Pacific Ocean would be legally allowed to travel by canoe, and Canoe Journey was born as a way to reclaim and celebrate this facet of our culture.
1989 marked the beginning of the revitalization of the canoe in coastal communities of the Pacific Northwest. The Paddle to Seattle, the first such intertribal canoe journey, was organized that year by Emmett Oliver (Quinault), who served as a committee member to Washington State’s 1989 centennial celebration. Oliver demonstrated great leadership in his roles as an educator, advocate and policy maker, and U.S. Coast Guard Officer, and he knew that Indigenous representation was vital to such a celebration.
A canoe is pulled, meaning each puller puts in their paddle on one side of the canoe and “pulls” the canoe forward through the water. The number of pullers in a canoe depends on the size of the canoe, and tribes make their canoes in different ways. For the canoes used during Paddle to Seattle, Oliver worked in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to provide old-growth cedar trees toto several Washington tribal communities, so that they could be carved into canoes. Before the 1989 paddle, it had been nearly 100 years since traditional canoes were regularly used as modes for transportation in northwest tribal communities. Now, the art of carving and canoe building are also in resurgence.
Almost twenty tribes participated in the Paddle to Seattle, with canoes pulled by members of each tribe leaving from various points across the region. The final landing of the journey was on July 21, 1989, when the canoes reached Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park in Shilshole Bay for Washington State’s centennial festivities.
Soon after the inaugural Paddle to Seattle canoe journey, the Heiltsuk nation announced an invitation for canoe families from up and down the coast to pull to Bella Bella, British Columbia, in 1993. From there on out, the annual tribal canoe journey was here to stay, and growing stronger each year.
My first canoe journey, the 2012 Paddle to Squaxin Island, was the same year canoe journey reached 100 canoes. It was thanks to Uncle Oliver that canoe journey began, thanks to his foundational work that canoe journey grew to be what it is today. Oliver was able to see journeys grow to reach that number, and his legacy lives on.
Participants in the 2012 Paddle to Squaxin. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0 by Dog Walking Girl on Wikipedia
It’s about the journey, not the destination
Prior to 2012, I was just a young, mixed Native girl who was born and raised in the greater Seattle area. I am Tlingit, my family is from Southeast Alaska, but I didn’t know a lot about my culture before participating in tribal journeys. I got to pull with my Alaska Native canoe family, One People Canoe Society (Juneau, Alaska) for my first time that year, and getting in the canoe taught me the importance of trust, communication, humility, and perseverance. Those values must be taken seriously, because when the waters get rough, everyone’s safety depends on the unity and strength of the paddlers. With each stride, you’re taking care of each other. And there are times where you have to really dig deep within yourself to find the reasons to not give up, find the reasons to believe in yourself and your own mental and physical strength.
The journey is not just about the destination, and the canoe isn’t just a mode of transportation—it's a place of healing. When you’re moving through an internal struggle on the canoe, you are never alone. Your ancestors are with you. If you begin to feel weak, your people will keep pulling for you. And you’ll do the same for someone else. We are all in this together. The building of relationships and introspection experienced in between each destination is a true gift. The journey is our way of life and extends beyond the canoe. The 10 Rules of the Canoe and the Southeast Alaska Traditional Tribal Values are what shaped me into the person I am today, and my identity as a Native person is centered around those values.
Canoes line a Puget Sound shoreline during the Power Paddle to Puyallup 2018. Photo courtesy of Chris Stearns (Navajo)
I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with artist Louie Gong (Nooksack) on a project that could represent the canoe journey spirit. The Silver Paddle Earrings and Necklace we designed for Eighth Generation symbolize that we need our way of life and we need our community. They're a reminder that our way of life needs us too. The design is based on a Tlingit axáa (paddle) that I carved during the summer of 2021. The original axáa was carved out of red cedar and features a triangle cutout at the handle, which distinguishes it as a Tlingit paddle. The triangle at the handle follows the flow of Northwest coast formline, but functionally it is meant to improve the vision of the puller. It allows for all the pullers in the yaakw (canoe) to see ahead and pull in unison, and therefore makes for a stronger canoe.
Stephanie Masterman (Tlingit) holds the paddle she carved while wearing the Silver Paddle Earrings she designed with Louie Gong (Nooksack) based off her carved wooden paddle
This year’s canoe journey is a BIG deal. Since 2019, Paddle to Lummi, the last tribal journey before the pandemic, we lost a lot of relatives. Native communities were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and this year’s theme “Honoring Our Warriors Past and Present” set by our journey host, Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, celebrates heritage and culture and is a prayer for all the loved ones we’ve lost, and all those who are still fighting and carrying on our cultures each day.
For the last few years, it hasn’t been safe enough for a gathering and celebration this large to take place. The Muckleshoot tribal community has been preparing to host thousands of people for a week of protocol from July 31 through August 6. Over 120 canoes and canoe families (a group pulling together in one canoe) will start their journey from their home territories or other locations along the coast in July, with all the canoes landing on Sunday, July 30 at Alki Beach in West Seattle. The landing is open to everyone—Native and non-Native alike—and for those who are able to witness the celebration, this journey is a profound example of Indigenous resilience.