Tribal Canoe Journey: Understanding the 'cannibal dance'

Julian Brave NoiseCat, a recipient of the 2017 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, files his fourth dispatch from the annual Tribal Canoe Journey as crews paddle in the Salish Sea in B.C.

Canoes have carried Indigenous cultures and communities back to strength in the 21st century

The K'omoks First Nation received over 50 canoes en route to Campbell River in British Columbia on the annual Tribal Canoe Journey. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

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. Read his previous dispatches here:

Comox, B.C., Aug. 2 — A flotilla of over 50 canoes representing Indigenous communities, from ports as distant as the Quinault and Squaxin Island reservations in Washington state, paddled into K'omoks First Nation territory on Wednesday.

As skippers beached their canoes, bows resting gunwale to gunwale on K'omoks shores in a formidable line that linked history to future, crews broke into the paddle songs of their respective home waters, celebrating the joys of arrival, kinship and community.

Standing on the beach to greet the visiting canoes, a K'omoks delegation dressed in their finest regalia and led by culture keeper Andy Everson responded with a resounding rendition of the enduring songs indigenous to this territory.

The K'omoks welcomed over 1,000 pullers and support crew members to their community for two days of feasting, singing, dancing and storytelling.

When the two-day protocol is done, the K'omoks will launch their own canoe on the Salish Sea, joining the Indigenous flotilla for the last leg of the Tribal Canoe Journey. More than 100 canoes are expected to land at Campbell River, the canoe journey's final port-of-call, on Saturday, Aug. 5.

Andy Everson, left, led the K'omoks delegation in songs welcoming Tribal Canoe Journey canoes ashore on Aug. 2. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

A family in every canoe

Every canoe on this journey has a family. Every family has a paddle song. Each paddle song, just like each canoe, has a name and a maker. These important details of origin, lineage, history and journey come to life in stories that crisscross the Salish Sea, extending to the north and south, to the inland and out into the Pacific Ocean, like the warp and weft of the traditional cedar bark hats the pullers wear out on the water.

One story that came to life on the beach after a hard day's pull was that of the Nokedjak, a canoe gifted by Guy Capoeman, a Quinault carver, to the Squaxin Island canoe family in 2012 when Squaxin hosted the journey.

"Nokedjak was the village name of my ancestors who were also carvers of ocean-sailing canoes," said Capoeman, who estimated that he has built 28 such canoes.

"Fifty years from now, when I'm dead and gone, someone will tell that story of Nokedjak and say, 'Yeah, this is where this comes from and this is what it means.'"

A canoe crew puller wearing a large woven cedar bark hat arrived in K'omoks First Nation territory on Aug. 2. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

Among the Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest, canoes aren't just the preferred mode of transport — they're the vehicles that have carried Indigenous families, communities and cultures back to strength in the 21st century.

"What better gift to a tribal journey recipient than a canoe that can be put into the village and impact lives?" Capoeman asked rhetorically.

Potlatches outlawed for decades

Here in Canada, a nation that prides itself on its enduring commitment to religious freedom, the 1885 Potlatch Ban criminalized Indigenous cultural and spiritual gatherings like this journey.

Historically, Indigenous ceremonies welcomed thousands of guests to giveaways that, even in the 19th century, cost the hosts tens of thousands of dollars in goods and food, according to Professor John Lutz, history department chair at the University of Victoria. The 1885 ban remained in place until 1951.

"What happened in these First Nations communities is these leading families — the nobles, the chiefs — would accumulate all this wealth and then give it all away to their community and to the neighbouring communities, and they would be as poor as the next person at the end of the feast — maybe they might be the poorest." Lutz explained.

"The missionaries saw potlatch as a central part of First Nations culture, which they wanted to replace with a Christian culture."

After landing on K'omoks shores, the canoe families gathered on the historical Puntledge Indian reserve to camp, feast, sing and dance. The Puntledge Coast Salish died out as a distinct community in the 1970s, though their descendants and bloodlines live on among the K'omoks First Nation.

Everson is a Hamatsa dancer and cultural leader of the K'omoks First Nation. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

In the evening after dinner was served to all, the Kumugwe dancers from K'omoks were first to perform on Puntledge ground. Andy Everson led them out in a Hamatsa, a traditional dance of community leaders that was outlawed by the Potlatch Ban.

"We often call it a 'cannibal dance' because our initiates, they're sent off into the woods, and they get filled with the spirit of Baxwbakwalanuksiwe' and it drives them to become wild and want to eat people," Everson explained to me after performing the public form of the dance.

"It's a way of sending our leaders — it's usually leaders in our community who get this position — to better themselves because it brings them down into the depths of humanity and that desire to actually consume one another."

Tides are turning

Despite persistent colonial efforts to stamp out Indigenous cultures and communities — to rid the world of the Hamatsa and Nokedjak — today there is a renaissance of Indigenous traditions and values in large part because of the Tribal Canoe Journey.

Frank Brown, Heiltsuk from Bella Bella, first dreamt up the canoe journey when he was a college student working at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, which serves urban Indigenous people, in the 1980s. He organized the inaugural journey for Expo '86 in Vancouver.

In the decades since, canoes and their families, songs, dances and communities have come storming back.

"It was really a powerful vessel for community empowerment, youth development, cultural revitalization, language retention, culture and protocol," Brown reflected. "Because you have to have those ceremonies intact when you exercise that ancient protocol of reconnecting with each other as canoe nations."

Dancers from the K'omoks Cultural Group performed for guests hosted on the grounds of the historic Puntledge reserve. (Julian Brave NoiseCat )

Here on K'omoks shores, the tides are turning. The Potlatch Ban and the colonial system that it enforced have failed. Indigenous leaders have emerged from the depths of that Hamatsa — from the place and history where we consumed one another. They are returning to the land and water to reclaim community, culture and territory.

After two days of joyous celebration on K'omoks lands, the canoes were ready to depart for an even bigger potlatch in Campbell River.

"Our Indigenous communities almost went extinct, but the future bodes well for us," Brown said, reflecting on his life's work. "At some time in the future, maybe there will be 1,000 canoes on the water."