'Like a reawakening': Tribal Canoe Journey concludes with hope for future
Indigenous communities share values of solidarity and sustainability
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. This is his fifth and final report from the annual Tribal Canoe Journey paddle to Campbell River, B.C., with generous support from the fellowship. Read his previous dispatches:
- Part 1: Tribes depart Washington
- Part 2: 'The border is not our border'
- Part 3: Battling the waves
- Part 4: Understanding the 'cannibal dance'
Tyee Spit, B.C., Aug. 5 —The canoes kept coming. Eighty-seven in total arrived at Tyee Spit on the traditional territory of the Wei Wai Kum Nation in Campbell River, B.C., the final port-of-call on the annual Tribal Canoe Journey.
Only a handful of canoes braved Discovery Passage, the swift waters separating co-host We Wai Kai Nation on Cape Mudge from their Wei Wai Kum brethren in Campbell River. The majority opted to tow to gentler waters where crew and family boarded for the final ceremonial paddle to Tyee Spit.
A humpback whale greeted canoes and support boats during the crossing. Rough waters simply added to the spirit of this trans-national voyage and gathering, hosted by Pacific Northwest Indigenous communities every year since 1993.
This year's journey began in places as far flung as Santa Rosa, Calif. and Southampton, N.Y., and ended with a week of potlatch singing, dancing, feasting and giveaways in the Wei Wai Kum Nation's Thunderbird Hall — their big house and spiritual home.
After the whale had its say, a Wei Wai Kum Nation delegation led by elected chief Jonathan Henderson and council member Curtis Wilson — wearing their finest thunderbird headdresses — welcomed the canoes onto Ligwilda'xw (southern) Kwakwaka'wakw lands.
"I thank you for braving the elements of Mother Nature — the boss out there — to be here," Chief Henderson said. "We want to feed you and we want to share our culture with you — and we would like you to share your culture with us. On behalf of Ligwilda'xw people and all Kwakwaka'wakw people, we welcome you to our territory. Gilakasla [Thank you and welcome]!"
As is customary, the canoes that travelled furthest were first to share song and word with their hosts. Chenae Bullock, representing Shinnecock Nation in Long Island, N.Y., graced the shores with a powerful song in her language, Together We Move Forward.
L. Frank, Tongva-Acjachemen, representing California's Paaxmiwoven canoe family, followed.
"Good afternoon, relatives, I am an extinct Indian and I am fighting that extinction," she said, after introducing herself in her endangered language. "I thank you with this gift and I'll bore you with a song."
Ceremony proceeded down the line until all 87 canoes representing 50+ Indigenous nations requited the Wei Wai Kum and We Wai Kai Nations' hospitality.
More than 3,000 people took in the pageantry at Tyee Spit — James Quatell, Quageelagee hereditary chief of the Wei Wai Kum Nation, among them.
His family's proud Kweladzatse big house stood on these shores for decades — perhaps centuries — until it was torn down in 1955, its fate the same as countless others destroyed by the religious intolerance of the Potlatch Ban.
"They couldn't fully delete that from our people, but they tried," Quatell intoned. "[The canoes' arrival] was like a reawakening to something that was always there."
Bringing communities together
This Indigenous reawakening would not have been possible if the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum Nations had not abandoned political disagreements to stand together as hosts.
Since designation of their reserve lands in 1888, these neighbouring First Nations have been embroiled in a legal dispute as tumultuous as the waters that separate them. The then-Department of Indian Affairs separated the Ligwilda'xw peoples into the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum on its rolls.
Adding insult to injury, the department allotted Wei Wai Kum reserve lands to the We Wai Kai Nation in what became known as the "ditto mark error." The McKenna McBride Commission, created to settle the Indian land question in B.C., acknowledged the error but failed to address it.
The dispute reached the Supreme Court in 2002, but was only resolved when the communities agreed to come together as Ligwilda'xw peoples.
"It strained relationships big time, including immediate families, because we've got aunts and uncles that live here in Wei Wai Kum. At the same time, Wei Wai Kum members have aunts and uncles that are members living with We Wai Kai," elected We Wai Kai Chief Brian Assu told me.
"We thought something like this cultural event would help tremendously to bring the communities together — and it has proven to do that."
As Indigenous solidarity unfolded at Tyee Spit, evidence of climate change hung in the air. Smoke traversed the mountains from forest fires raging in B.C.'s interior.
A crisis is brewing in the fisheries that have sustained the Ligwilda'xw peoples and all humans dwelling in the Pacific Northwest since the start of our presence on these lands and waters. While the fishery usually runs on a four-year cycle, the 2016 and 2017 seasons are looking to be the lowest on record, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission.
"Our food fishery should be winding down right now, and yet all of our boats are still tied up to the dock and there's no fish being delivered anywhere to anybody's villages," said Tony Roberts, Jr., Wei Wai Kum, vice-president of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia, who has made a living as a fisherman since he was six years old and sits on too many fisheries boards to name.
"It's going to be a very tough, tough year for a lot of people, because they rely on that fish to be in their deep freezers."
The Wei Wai Kum Nation ran out of salmon to feed visitors on the opening night of its potlatch. In the Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest, where cultures celebrate massive ceremonial giveaways of goods, arts and foodstuffs through potlatch protocols such as this one hosted by the Ligwilda'xw, it is no small thing to let your guests go hungry. In a community rich for generations from the bounty of the sea, this was a new and likely humbling experience.
Back in Thunderbird Hall, there was still cause for celebration.
After dinner, the Ligwilda'xw graced their guests with one of their most sacred protocols, the Red Cedar Bark ceremony, which, according to James Quatell, must be completed for the Kwakwaka'wakw to bring out their Gildas, or box of treasures.
There was an earth-shaking rendition of the Hamatsa, or "cannibal" dance, so named because members of the secret society are said to consume human flesh during initiation. Andy Everson, a Hamatsa dancer from K'omoks, described cannibalism as a metaphor for the depths of human experience — the confrontation and consumption of death.
Few are as forthcoming due to the sanctity of the ceremony. The Wei Wai Kum provided just a small taste of the dance. As Quatell explained, the full version lasts 10 to 12 hours.
Frank Brown, who organized the first canoe journey in 1986, looked on from his seat in Thunderbird Hall. His Heiltsuk people practise a similar ceremony called the Tánis, as do many Northwest Indigenous communities. The Hamatsa strengthened them during the crisis of colonization that almost wiped their communities from the map in the 19th century— similar to the prophetic Native American Ghost Dance.
"I spoke with my uncle, Robert Hall, and how he seen it was as a prophetic dance that was a foretelling of what our society is like today, where we're consuming ourselves through our processes of capitalism, industrialization — if you look at it, we're consuming all of the resources of our planet," Brown explained.
Taking in the view from Campbell River and our present reality of the "Anthropocene," a term coined by geologists to describe the impact of the 1,500 billion tons of carbon dioxide burned into the atmosphere in the quarter-millennium since James Watt patented the steam engine in 1784, it seems there are unacknowledged poetics and unrecognized truths in Brown's words and the Indigenous knowledge that is alive and well in Thunderbird Hall.
"The tremendous value of the Tribal Canoe Journey is that it puts our young people out onto the water, onto the land … it endears it into the hearts of our young people so that when they're called upon to stand up for those resources that we depend on, the community has a very strong ethic, value and commitment, because they're practising the lifestyle," Brown explained, reflecting on his life's work.
"I think that our people have an opportunity to not only share these important lessons about the sustainability of community within our own communities, but also about the sustainability of what communities depend upon for their sustenance and their very existence — and that is the natural resources. We have to be able to look back in order to move forward."
Depending on when you mark the beginning of this journey, it took weeks or generations for these canoes to arrive on Ligwilda'xw shores. But in a world roiled by planet-sized, human-caused crises, they may have arrived just in time.