An odyssey to re­claim tra­di­tion and ter­ri­tory


An odyssey to re­claim tra­di­tion and ter­ri­tory Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Ju­lian Brave Noise­cat

MY ALARM SOUNDS at 3:45 a.m. — so early it might be considered night. There’s only one bed in my dad’s rental cot­tage in Shel­ton, Wash., so when I visit, we choose sides. I roll over, smack­ing him with my fore­arm, wak­ing him, too. I have work to do. At 6 a.m., the Quin­ault Na­tion’s ocean­go­ing ca­noe is set­ting out to sea on the Tribal Ca­noe Jour­ney, an an­nual trans-na­tional In­dige­nous voy­age and gath­er­ing in the Pa­cific North­west. Of 87 par­tic­i­pat­ing ca­noes, the Quin­ault were sched­uled to voy­age far­thest, and I want to cover their de­par­ture. Their reser­va­tion is two hours’ drive west of my dad’s place on the Olympic Penin­sula, so we need to get on the road. I haven’t com­mu­ni­cated my early de­par­ture im­per­a­tive to my fa­ther clearly enough. As I hop into my jeans, he am­bles into the kitchen to put on a pot of cof­fee, then into the bath­room to lather his face and shave his stub­ble. While I march out to the car, my ears catch the fa­mil­iar flick of the lighter fol­lowed by a deep in­hale as dad sparks a one-hit­ter. My dad is an artist — carver, sculp­tor, print­maker, ma­gi­cian — suf­fer­ing from chronic back pain. Mar­i­juana, le­gal in Wash­ing­ton, stokes his imag­i­na­tion and soothes his pain. “We are go­ing to be late!” I tell him. By the time we leave at 4:15 a.m., I am thor­oughly ex­as­per­ated. I am wrong. We bar­rel down back­woods high­ways, pulling up to the Quin­ault launch point with time to spare. For two years run­ning, the ca­noe jour­ney has brought my fa­ther and me to­gether, re­mind­ing us of who and how we love, and what it means to be In­dige­nous men. For the last two years, we’ve joined the Squaxin Is­land Ca­noe Fam­ily on this re­mark­able voy­age. Squaxin Is­land is just one of dozens of com­mu­ni­ties that par­tic­i­pate in the ca­noe jour­ney. Ev­ery year since 1993, ca­noe fam­i­lies have de­parted from home waters through­out the Pa­cific North­west on a col­lec­tive odyssey to re­claim tra­di­tion and ter­ri­tory. This year, our jour­ney had be­gun on July 17 at Ar­ca­dia Point, Wash. — tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory of the Squaxin Is­land Tribe — and ends dozens of days and hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres later in the waters of the Wei Wai Kum First Na­tion in Camp­bell River, B.C. For the two of us, hon­oured to be wel­comed by our Squaxin Is­land rel­a­tives, these jour­neys are both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal. I GET SOME OF my best ma­te­rial from the trip on the Quin­ault reser­va­tion that morn­ing of July 18. As the lone Quin­ault ca­noe pre­pares to set out to sea just be­low Point Grenville, I lis­ten to Harold Curley, an el­der and di­rect de­scen­dant of leg­endary Chief Ta­ho­lah, who signed the 1855 Quin­ault Treaty es­tab­lish­ing this reser­va­tion. “Did you hear the story of the Spa­niards com­ing out here in a great big bat­tle ship?” he asks, look­ing out to sea. In 1775, the Span­ish Em­pire sent a two-ship ex­pe­di­tion from Mex­ico cap­tained by Basque ex­plorer Bruno de He­c­eta to claim the Pa­cific North­west over Bri­tish, Rus­sian and French ri­vals. The Span­ish came ashore at this beach in Quin­ault ter­ri­tory on July 12 that year — a sum­mer day just like this one — be­com­ing the first Euro­peans to set foot in what is now Wash­ing­ton state. “What hap­pened is they came here, and there was nine In­di­ans who was up there cook­ing crabs and clams,” he ex­plains, ges­tur­ing at Point Grenville. “They in­vited [the Span­ish] in, but they didn’t want to eat. In­stead, they went over here and planted a cross in the name of King Car­los III.” Ac­cord­ing to the Span­ish, Quin­ault ter­ri­tory was now part of Mex­ico and the Kingdom of Spain. Ac­cord­ing to the

Quin­ault, this ter­ri­tory is, and al­ways has been, ju­ris­dic­tion of the Quin­ault In­dian Na­tion. “The next morn­ing, [the Span­ish] came in and they went off chop­ping wood to fix a bro­ken mast,” he con­tin­ues. “So, they sent in a john­boat, and the nar­ra­tor [a crewmem­ber who logged the day’s events] on that ship (there were about two or three nar­ra­tors in each ship) said that there was 300 sav­ages came out of the woods and came on them and then [the Span­ish] tried to chase them away by shoot­ing the can­nons and ev­ery­thing, and they just seen their seven men lost.” The Span­ish named the point at the end of the beach “Punta de los Mar­tires” (Point of the Mar­tyrs), af­ter their fallen com­pa­tri­ots. Bruno de He­c­eta never again vis­ited Quin­ault ter­ri­tory. “I have two can­non­balls at home from that john­boat,” says Curley, paus­ing to let the weight of this lit­tle­known his­tory sink in — two can­non­balls fired at his an­ces­tors on this very beach. “Ain’t that some­thing?” As I took in Curley’s re­mark­able story — in which the Spa­niards failed and his fam­ily passed on can­non­balls that missed their tar­gets like souvenirs, I saw my dad out of the corner of my eye, stand­ing proud — and a lit­tle stoned.

The ca­noe jour­ney has brought my fa­ther and me to­gether, re­mind­ing us of what it means to be In­dige­nous men.

MY FA­THER’S FRIEND Frank Brown from Bella Bella is a trick­ster, of sorts. Ac­cord­ing to an­cient oral his­to­ries of the Pa­cific North­west, the world was born from cu­rios­ity and mis­chief. Raven stole the sun, moon, stars and wa­ter from Cre­ator. Coy­ote’s schemes turned the land and coy­ote him­self from su­per­nat­u­ral to worldly. As these trick­sters wan­dered the Earth look­ing for food, trea­sure and love, pro­pel­ling change and find­ing trouble, they made our planet into what it is today. These sto­ries are mostly char­ac­ter­ized as le­gends or fa­bles — thereby in­fan­tiliz­ing them. But I think they are bet­ter un­der­stood as metaphors, of­fer­ing poetic the­ses about who changes so­ci­ety and the planet, and how. In a world shaped by Hol­ly­wood nar­ra­tives (the Rebels blow up the Death Star, the Avengers save the world), trick­ster sto­ries of­fer ex­pla­na­tions that are com­pli­cated, am­bigu­ous and of­ten ironic. Change hap­pens through ac­tions in­ten­tional and co­in­ci­den­tal, clever and lucky, no­ble and cun­ning. Change­mak­ers stand at the edge of one world, form­ing the next from what­ever is at hand — es­pe­cially pil­fered ma­te­ri­als. While Brown and my fa­ther were young bucks run­ning the streets of Van­cou­ver, Brown or­ga­nized the first

sym­bolic ca­noe jour­ney as part of Expo 86, the world’s fair in Van­cou­ver that co­in­cided with the city’s cen­ten­nial. In 1984, Brown, a col­lege stu­dent work­ing at the Van­cou­ver Abo­rig­i­nal Friend­ship Cen­tre, re­ceived a re­quest from the city’s mayor for na­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in the ex­po­si­tion. Brown jumped at the op­por­tu­nity. Expo wasn’t about re­vi­tal­iz­ing na­tive cul­ture, but Brown was. “My in­ter­est was to rep­re­sent our­selves, to show the first form of trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the coast,” says Brown. “And for us, that was the glwa, or ocean­go­ing ca­noe.” Post-expo, the idea con­tin­ued to spread. In 1989, the late Em­mett Oliver of the Quin­ault Na­tion or­ga­nized the Pad­dle to Seat­tle to en­sure na­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion dur­ing Wash­ing­ton state’s cen­ten­nial. Iron­i­cally, twice it was the cel­e­bra­tion of a cen­tury of colo­nial set­tle­ment that pro­vided the plat­form for a resur­gence of In­dige­nous ca­noes. I think of these historical mo­ments as Thanks­giv­ings in re­v­erse — In­dige­nous peo­ple ap­pro­pri­at­ing colo­nial cel­e­bra­tions to bring back tra­di­tional life-ways and re­claim con­nec­tions to an­ces­tral lands. In 1993, Brown’s home com­mu­nity of Bella Bella hosted the first an­nual Qatuwas, or “peo­ple gath­er­ing to­gether,” in con­junc­tion with the In­ter­na­tional

‘My in­ter­est was to rep­re­sent our­selves, to show the first form of trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the coast. ’

Year of the World’s In­dige­nous Peo­ple. The gath­er­ing, there­after known as the Tribal Ca­noe Jour­ney, has been held ev­ery year since. “The peo­ple of the coast have em­braced the ves­sel as an em­pow­er­ing tool in our process of de­col­o­niza­tion,” says Brown. “How­ever, it does not come with­out a chal­lenge, and that’s what our young peo­ple need: to chal­lenge them­selves through think­ing through, and work­ing through, the process of get­ting from one des­ti­na­tion to an­other.” OUR SKIP­PER GUIDES the ca­noe’s bow into the on­rush­ing white waters of Dodd’s Nar­rows, a treach­er­ous coastal bot­tle­neck be­tween Van­cou­ver Is­land and Gabri­ola Is­land just south of Nanaimo, B.C. My fa­ther braces his foot against mine and leans for­ward, poised to charge into bat­tle against the mighty Sal­ish Sea. Dad, vet­eran of rez fisticuffs, in­her­i­tor of a cen­turies-long re­sis­tance against an­ni­hi­la­tion that bent his body and spirit into per­ma­nent de­fen­sive pride, has a war­rior’s heart. He is 5'10", but in these mo­ments, even as his 57-year-old frame fades, his pres­ence is much taller. Our bod­ies are fail­ing — my fa­ther’s from decades of carv­ing hulk­ing tree trunks and down­ing thou­sands of bot­tles, mine from a bad case of cox­sack­ievirus, with ac­com­pa­ny­ing flu-like symp­toms, that landed me in the emer­gency room just a few days prior — but our spir­its are un­yield­ing. The skip­per calls out 100, 200, then 300 “power pulls” — hard, prayer­ful strokes, to mus­cle our crew of 11 through the rough waters of the nar­rows and the hard knocks of life. De­spite col­lec­tive strug­gle, our ca­noe barely pro­gresses. Dad swears in pain and frus­tra­tion. Af­ter 500 power pulls, we stop count­ing al­to­gether and break into song. “Wi-la, Wi-la, Wi-la-wi!” our young pace­set­ter calls out from the bow. “He-yo!” we re­spond from the stern. “Hu! Hu! Hu!” Af­ter 20 min­utes of back­break­ing work, we pull through the far side of the nar­rows. Along the voy­age, crews sing pad­dle songs, new and old, to keep rhythm and up­lift spirit. Af­ter each long day of pulling un­der the sum­mer sun, ca­noes, sup­port boats and road crews stop to visit with their hosts, rekin­dling con­nec­tions that

criss-cross the North­west, ex­tend­ing north and south, to the in­land and out onto the sea, like the warp and weft of the tra­di­tional cedar bark hats the pullers wear on the wa­ter. It takes days and even weeks of pad­dling across hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres of ocean for the ca­noes to reach each year’s fi­nal port-of-call in early Au­gust. There, the par­tic­i­pants cel­e­brate with a week of pot­latch singing, danc­ing, feast­ing and give­aways. Con­trast this with the mod­ern world that is ha­bit­u­ated to jets, trains, ships and au­to­mo­biles, where travel is solo or in small groups with lit­tle labour en­tailed. Spa­ces tra­versed are lim­i­nal, some­times termed “fly-over coun­try.” The des­ti­na­tion is what mat­ters. If you need to get from point A to point B, buy a ticket or fill up the tank, grab a bag and go. The tra­di­tional ocean­go­ing ca­noe, mean­while, is a com­mu­nal ves­sel. Groups work to­gether to fell and carve old-growth cedar, ideal for a hull. Gen­er­a­tions of master carvers have fine­tuned the ca­noe’s dy­namic form. Metic­u­lous craft and care go into burn­ing the log hol­low and shap­ing it with an adze. Ev­ery year, dozens of hands come to­gether to carry wa­ter­craft to the sea. Teams of pullers pad­dling in uni­son pi­lot their way through churn­ing tides, crash­ing waves and swift cur­rents to tra­verse the coastal seascape that con­nects ocean to con­ti­nent and past to fu­ture. “This ca­noe move­ment is the most sig­nif­i­cant gath­er­ing of In­dige­nous Peo­ples in the Amer­i­cas today,” says Brown. “What it does is it en­dears [our ter­ri­to­ries] into the hearts of our young peo­ple so that when it comes time and they’re called upon to stand up for those re­sources that we de­pend on, and that en­vi­ron­ment, then the com­mu­nity has a very strong ethic and a value and a com­mit­ment, be­cause they’re prac­tis­ing the life­style.”

‘This ca­noe move­ment is the most sig­nif­i­cant gath­er­ing of In­dige­nous Peo­ples in the Amer­i­cas today.’

NOT LONG AGO, gen­er­a­tions of In­dige­nous chil­dren were ab­ducted and in­car­cer­ated in res­i­den­tial schools. Their languages and cul­tures were quite lit­er­ally beaten out of them in an or­ga­nized ef­fort to “kill the In­dian in t he child.” At the same time, In­dige­nous cul­tural and spir­i­tual gath­er­ings were out­lawed un­der the pot­latch ban in 1886, which re­mained in ef­fect un­til 1951. Both of my fa­ther’s par­ents were sent to res­i­den­tial schools. He was born in a res­i­den­tial school hos­pi­tal and spent his child­hood bounc­ing from one home to the next. He has lived a life of in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma, strug­gling to be a fa­ther. His ab­sence from my child­hood left me — the next gen­er­a­tion — with an en­dur­ing wound where a par­ent should have been. Yet de­spite per­sis­tent ef­forts to stamp out In­dige­nous cul­tures and com­mu­ni­ties — to make my grand­par­ents and my fa­ther for­get who they are — today, In­dige­nous peo­ple such as me are born into a world where the beauty and power of who we are is em­braced. In the Pa­cific North­west, the ca­noe is cen­tral to this resur­gence. It brings com­mu­ni­ties to­gether to pad­dle an­ces­tral wa­ter­ways. It chal­lenges elders and youth to re­vive old songs and dances and com­pose new ones so they can pad­dle onto their neigh­bours’ shores, proudly singing-in the spir­its of our an­ces­tors. In an age of dig­i­tal re­la­tion­ships, it brings fam­i­lies to­gether to cel­e­brate and work through trou­bles. It rein­tro­duces peo­ple to wa­ter in an elemental way, re­mind­ing us that wa­ter sus­tains life. This is a messy process. It’s not a weekly church ser­vice. Af­ter gen­er­a­tions of colo­nial trauma, na­tive fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties have se­ri­ous is­sues to work through over early morn­ing ca­noe de­par­tures, can­non­balls that memo­ri­al­ize our trick­ster past and mar­i­juana bowls that signify our painful present. But if we rise to the chal­lenge and learn to live and work to­gether again, the resur­gence of In­dige­nous val­ues and teach­ings just might carry trans­for­ma­tive po­ten­tial for a world hurtling to­ward eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter. We are the prog­eny of trick­sters, af­ter all. And this is how trick­sters change the world.

Wei Wai Kum coun­cil mem­bers ( op­po­site) wel­come jour­ney par­tic­i­pants in Camp­bell River, B.C. K’ómoks dancers per­form for the ca­noeists near Courte­nay, B.C. ( above).

A tra­di­tional In­dige­nous glwa, an ocean­go­ing ca­noe, departs Stz’umi­nus First Na­tion waters in Bri­tish Columbia en route to Snuney­muxw First Na­tion ter­ri­tory dur­ing the 2017 Tribal Ca­noe Jour­ney.

Wei Wai Kum dancers per­form the holy Ha­matsa for jour­ney guests ( op­po­site). El­der Harold Curley (far right) and other Quin­ault tribal mem­bers form a prayer cir­cle near Point Grenville, Wash. ( left).

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