‘A Transformative Experience’: Edmonds Woman Recalls Native American Canoe Trip Across the Salish Sea

Diana White is getting ready for the canoe trip. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Paddling in a traditional Coast Salish open canoe 144 miles of the Salish Sea is not an adventure that everyone would like.

“We had several wake-up calls at 4 am, and some days we paddled for eight or nine hours,” said Diana White of Edmonds as she recalled her experiences last August while participating in the Healing Waters canoe trip. “I rowed every day and my best short description of the experience is ‘transformative’. It changed me, opened my eyes and my mind to new things. I came back different from when I left.

The 2021 Healing Waters canoe trip was a continuation of a tradition started in 1989 as part of Washington State’s centennial celebration. Hosted by the late Emmett Oliver, the 1989 event secured a place for the First Peoples of Washington State in the festivities. Oliver was a citizen of the Quinault Nation, a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer, educator, and advocate who served on the committee that planned the Washington State Centennial celebration (read more about Oliver here). This return of Indigenous canoes to an Indigenous place – Seattle, a town named after the 1800s chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples – spawned the annual canoe trip and a cultural renaissance involving generations of a growing number of nations. indigenous.

Before being suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual paddle trip drew more than 100 canoes. (Photo courtesy of the Blue Heron Canoe family)

As the primary means of travel between coastal communities in Puget Sound, living canoes have held a vital place for the Coast Salish people as vehicles of welcome and conflict, fishing and trade, and a tradition deeply rooted culture passed down from generation to generation.

“The original Paddle to Seattle only had about ten canoes,” White explained. “But over the next few years it grew to over 100 ocean going canoes. It was a real mix; some were related to specific tribes, others to multiple tribes, and some had non-native participants. Travel quickly became a place for natives to reconnect, rediscover and share their culture with each other and with others.

While the larger annual tradition has been put on hold in 2020 and 2021 (and will likely be suspended in 2022) due to COVID, some smaller-scale trips have been organized to help keep the tradition alive.

The Blue Heron (foreground) and Willipa Spirit launch into Puget Sound from the Edmonds Waterfront Center as they begin the 2021 Healing Waters canoe trip. (Photo courtesy of Edmonds Waterfront Center)

One of them was the Healing Waters Journey, a two-week paddle tracing 144 miles of traditional Salish Sea canoe routes. Organized by the Blue Heron canoe family, an outgrowth of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College, the trip honors traditions and celebrates ancestral knowledge and canoe culture, providing young people with a way to learn, internalize and reclaim this cultural identity. The Blue Heron family have been participating in canoe trips since their formation over ten years ago.

“Canoe families can include a mix of tribes, races, ages and genders,” said White, a member of the Blue Heron family. “My tribe is from the Midwest. But you must be invited to join us.

The Willipa Spirit (foreground) and the Blue Heron on the beach in the San Juan Islands.

A registered member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Indians and also of Cherokee descent, White notes that his grandparents met at an Indian residential school in Oklahoma. In addition to his strong Native American heritage, the other side of White’s family tree includes some of the original Dutch pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower.

The Healing Waters journey began on August 2, 2021 in Edmonds, where members of the Blue Heron family, including family patriarch Mike Evans, were joined by the community for a ceremony of dances, songs, stories and more as they launched their canoes and set out on what would be a shared experience of culture, spiritual renewal, bonding and more. (See My Edmonds News full coverage of the departure ceremony here.) Two canoes, the Blue Heron and the Willipa Spirit, participated.

This map traces the two-week healing waters journey along a traditional Salish Sea canoe route.

The two-week trip took the Blue Heron family along a traditional route, stopping at indigenous reserve lands, state parks and beaches on Camano Island, Fidalgo Island and the San Juans. This included paddling 3- to 4-foot seas across the Rosario Strait, as well as the more protected waters of Skagit Bay and the San Juan Islands (see map).

Much of the experience involved immersing yourself in what White describes as “canoe culture,” a key part of which is “leaving the“ it ”behind.

Blue heron silhouetted against the sunset off Lopez Island. (Photo courtesy of the Blue Heron Canoe family)

“By this we mean leaving aside your problems, grievances, grudges, and other emotional and spiritual baggage,” White explained. “When you get into the canoe, you enter another world where you, your paddlers, the canoe, the water, the sky – everything – almost become a separate entity.

“When you go on a trip, no one really knows who the other is,” she continued. “On earth we may be unemployed students or highly paid and respected professionals, but your identity on earth is part of the ‘it’ you leave behind. “

Other aspects of canoeing culture include staying on the side with part of your body in contact with the canoe as you paddle, staying in sync with the main paddler, and knowing that you, as a crew, get stronger with all the paddles in the water, sing along to the beat, enjoying the jokes and stories, and looking around to discover the world around and enveloping you. “And don’t call them ‘boats’ unless you want to be thrown into the water,” White added.

Not all of the 60-strong Blue Heron family were paddlers, but they provided ground support for the trip by setting up a camp, cooking and more. (Photo courtesy of the Blue Heron Canoe family)

Canoe culture also has specific rules and procedures for visiting and interacting with people encountered along the way. This includes a ritualized disembarkation ceremony. As you approach a colony, the canoe captain gets up, identifies who they are, which tribe, and asks permission to land. Rather than landing head-on, the canoe is always pulled back onto the shore as a sign of respect and non-aggression.

“My reactions were different there,” White explained. “One day we had an alarm clock at 4 am. It had been raining all night, and we had to dismantle our tent, get up camp, and be on the water at 6 a.m. In normal life I would be so cranky about this! But during the trip, everyone does the same thing and experiences the same thing – it didn’t even bother me. You focus on the task at hand. I knew I was meant to be there, it was part of the spirit, the pace of the journey. It’s so much bigger than you. No one person is more important than another.

She also stressed the overarching ethic of focusing on the canoe, keeping it safe and getting it where it needs to be, adding that “You take care of the canoe first, then camp, then you- same. “

Sunset on the beach. (Photo courtesy of the Blue Heron Canoe family)

This means that someone is always watching the canoe.

On the last night of the trip, that job fell to White and another family member who camped out on the beach to be with the canoes.

“We slept in the open air on Jackson Beach near Friday Harbor,” she says. “It was meteor shower night and we just looked up at the sky. The water off the beach was full of luminescent plankton that we could walk through. When the sun came up the next morning, I did. was so filled with gratitude – that I was able to witness all the beauty of Earth, the work of the Creator, things that are greater than me. It was a truly transcendent moment that I was able to take with me and which is now part of my life ashore.

Diana White has put her photos and memories of the Healing Waters trip together in a slideshow that she is making available to community and school groups. To arrange a presentation, contact her at [email protected]

– By Larry Vogel

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