Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St'at'imc) is one of two recipients of the 2017 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, established to encourage Indigenous voices and better understanding of Indigenous issues in Canada's major media and community outlets. He is reporting on the annual Tribal Canoe Journey paddle to Campbell River, B.C. with generous support from the fellowship.


Arcadia Point, Washington, July 17 — It's Monday morning rush hour in Seattle. Just 40 miles to the south and west, in the traditional territory of the Squaxin Island Tribe, a very different kind of journey is about to begin.

About 50 people from the Nisqually, Puyallup, Skokomish and Squaxin Island tribes are gathered on the rocky shores of Arcadia Point. The point, now the site of a small waterfront subdivision, lies just across the inlet from Squaxin Island — the Squaxin Island tribe's original reservation.

Some tribal members describe this desolate islet, where their ancestors were incarcerated for generations, as a concentration camp. The community relocated to a reservation on the mainland decades ago.

Today, on the Arcadia side of the inlet, children splash in summer water. Trucks back down the boat launch, settling canoes and skiffs into the gentle and generous South Salish Sea. Crews and onlookers greet old friends.

After I snap a photo, a man with ties to the Lil'Wat Nation, where I have relatives, introduces himself. As strong men guide canoes and boats to shore forming a loose row of beached watercraft, elders and parents holler at kids to stop playing in the shallows. It's important to respect the canoes.

The Tribal Canoe Journey, an annual trans-national Indigenous voyage and gathering that brings together communities across the Pacific Northwest from places as far-flung as Ketchikan, Alaska and Grand Ronde, Ore., is about to begin.

Child playing in Arcadia boat launch

A child plays in the water at the boat launch on the Arcadia side of the inlet. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

One by one, five canoes of young paddlers set off from Arcadia Point. Two each represent Squaxin Island and Puyallup and one represents Skokomish. Before departing, each canoe circles back to shore, approaching an expectant Squaxin delegation.

"Paddles up!" yells each skipper from the canoe's stern.

In historic times, canoes pulling aggressively to shore usually meant one thing: war. As canoes approach landfall, crew members put their paddles up, grips planted on the floor and tips pointing to the sky, to show that they come in peace.

Then a young man or woman stands up, balancing delicately in the canoe. Each thanks the Squaxin delegation for their hospitality and asks permission to leave their shores. A single elected representative from Squaxin responds.

As the canoes glide out to sea en route to Solo Point in Nisqually territory, singers in the canoes and ashore let loose with the paddle song of their respective canoe family.

This protocol will be repeated dozens of times as canoes pull through hundreds of kilometres of seascape, making their way to Campbell River, B.C., halfway up the eastern side of Vancouver Island for a week of potlatch song, dance, feast and giveaway from Aug. 5 to 10.

After Nisqually, these five canoes will continue up the sound on a special youth leg of the journey that will pass through Seattle on Wednesday, July 19, before ending in Port Gamble on Friday, July 21. After the youth leg, these canoe families will return to their respective home ports before continuing to Vancouver Island.

"For the Squaxin Island tribe, the canoe journey has so many values that cannot be expressed in money," said Charlene Krise, a tribal council member from Squaxin Island.

"But they can be expressed in what we see happens for our people."

Jake Smith (Skokomish)

Jake Smith of the Skokomish tribe. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

Point Grenville, Washington, July 18 — A canoe crashing down between the waves as it pulls out to sea or comes in to shore can split heads and break bones. "Launch and landing are the hardest thing on the ocean," said Sonny Curley, a Quinault tribal member skippering the lone canoe departing Quinault waters Tuesday.

"There's big tides, big waves and the currents are very rough."

Indigenous communities respect water for many reasons. Here in Point Grenville, Wash., on the Quinault Indian reservation, water is respected because it enables life, but also because it can take it away.

The Quinault have been watching the forecast for a week. Today, the Pacific looks like a pristine blue mirror, stretching as far as the eye can see — perfect conditions to start the journey.

As the sun rises over the treetops, casting its rays on the water, a small contingent of about two dozen Quinault tribal members gathers on the beach just below the point.

When I arrive at six in the morning, the men have already hauled the canoe about 100 metres to the shoreline. Now, they are carrying paddles, life-jackets and the day's supplies to their vessel. Today, they will pull for eight hours, travelling about 50 kilometres to the mouth of the Queets River on the north side of the Quinault reservation.

The Quinault and their Quileute and Makah neighbours, who make their homes on Washington's Pacific coast, have hunted whales in oceangoing canoes for hundreds, even thousands of years. The Makah, whose reservation is at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, still do.

It's hard to imagine men pursuing and killing a whale in a canoe. The task seems herculean — even impossible, in my mind. But once you've seen the Quinault move together with purpose at the crack of dawn, it doesn't seem quite so far-fetched. Humans can do godly things when they work together.

Tribal Canoe Journey launch

Families gather at the beach to see loved ones off at Point Grenville, Wash., on July 18. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

The Quinault don't whale anymore, but they are still oceangoing people.

"Between all of us here, each of us captains, we probably have over 10,000 nautical miles traveling these ancient highways, teaching ocean navigating to our children," said Reggie Ward, a traditional Quinault captain.

"That's what we're doing here this morning … carrying on those old ways in a happy way."

As at Arcadia, families have come down to the beach to see loved ones off. In the chilly early morning hours, it's too cold for the kids to splash in the shallows, but that doesn't stop them from playing. Instead, they chase the tides in and out in a game of chicken. The goal is to get your feet as close to the water as possible without getting wet.

On the beach, I introduce myself to Harold Curley, Sonny's father, a direct descendant of the 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 asked, looking out at the Pacific.

In 1775, the Spanish Empire sent a two-ship expedition under Basque explorer Bruno de Heceta north from Mexico to stake claim to the Pacific Northwest against British, Russian and French rivals. The Spanish came ashore at this beach in Quinault territory on July 12 of that year, 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 explained, gesturing at Grenville Point.

"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, this land was now part of Mexico and the Kingdom of Spain. According to the Quinault, this land was, and still is, part of the Quinault Indian Nation.

"The next morning, [the Spanish] came in and they went off chopping wood to fix a broken mast," he continued.

"So they sent in a john boat, and the narrator on that ship — there was 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 now called Point Grenville "Punta de los Martires" (Point of the Martyrs), after their fallen compatriots. De Heceta never returned to Quinault lands.

"I have two cannonballs at home from that john boat," he said, pausing to let the weight of this little-known stretch of history sink in — two cannonballs fired at his ancestors on this very beach. "Ain't that something?"

Harold Curley

Harold Curley is a direct descendant of the legendary Chief Taholah, who signed the 1855 Quinault Treaty. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

Mid-conversation, Sonny comes over to fetch his dad. The canoe is ready to depart, and it's time to pray. The pullers form a circle, lock hands and bow heads as Harold asks a higher power to watch over their journey. After the prayer, the pullers clamber into the canoe and set out to sea, their silhouette slowly receding into the horizon.

Canoe families from the neighbuoring Quileute and Makah nations to the north will first host and then join this Quinault canoe for the pull up the coast and around the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in the coming days.

On July 23, this far-western contingent of Washington Indigenous communities will meet up with canoes that began their journey in Squaxin Island and elsewhere in the state. From there, all the Washington tribes will cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca for Canada on July 24.

It's a long, tiring and logistically complicated journey all the way to Campbell River, but the Quinault wouldn't have it any other way.

"Grab a paddle," Reggie Ward told me, grinning. "Hop in!"