'We're at the mercy of the water': Battling the waves on the tribal canoe trip

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

Tribal Canoe Journey: Paddling in the Salish Sea

The crew of Nokedjak, the Squaxin Island canoe, paddle during 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 first and second dispatches here.

Salish Sea, July 26 — "Squaxin Island pullers, it's time to get up!"

Joe Seymour, one of the skippers who captains our canoe, isn't beseeching. He's ordering.

It's 5 a.m. The sun has yet to rise. Even the birds are still sleeping.

"Squaxin Island pullers, it's time to get up!"

Joe has to repeat himself because — let's face it — if he didn't, we, the Squaxin Island pullers, would fall back to sleep in seconds.

We are on the Tribal Canoe Journey, an annual transnational voyage and gathering that brings together Indigenous communities from throughout the Pacific Northwest.

We still have hundreds of kilometres to travel on the Salish Sea before arriving in our final destination of Campbell River, B.C., on Aug. 5 for a week of potlatch singing, dancing, feasting and giveaways.

The tide will start coming in soon, according to our Indigenous hosts from the Esquimalt First Nation on Vancouver Island, who know these waters better than anyone.

Today, we have a seven-hour pull over 50 kilometres that will bring us around Victoria and north to the Tsawout First Nation. The tides — caused by the sun, moon, gravity and the rotation of the Earth — plus the distance we must travel determined our ungodly waking hour. Joe was just a human alarm.

On the Tribal Canoe Journey, water is the master of time. All along our voyage to Campbell River, currents, swells and storms govern when we rise and how long we labour on the water, not the clock.

Scars of colonialism

"Water is life," the rallying cry synonymous with the #NoDAPL movement, called thousands to action on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in 2016 and 2017.

Here, on the Salish Sea, water is time.

The Nokedjak canoe from Squaxin Island, Washington, glides through the Salish Sea. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

The lands of the Esquimalt First Nation, like all the territories from which we embark on this voyage, bear deep scars of colonialism.

The Esquimalt shores upon which we rested the last two days — as well as the Snuneymuxw, Songhees, Tsartlip and Tsawout lands where we will travel soon — were taken by Governor James Douglas, who negotiated 14 treaties to purchase land for the Colony of Vancouver Island and Hudson's Bay Company between 1850 and 1854.

In Washington state, where we began our journey, Governor Isaac Stevens used the threat of war to intimidate tribes into signing a series of treaties in 1854 and 1855 surrendering their lands.

These treaties are unique in the history of what is now British Columbia. Further north on Vancouver Island and mainland B.C., First Nations never signed treaties handing over their lands. In the eyes of many First Nations, their ancestral lands are unceded territories.

Anglo-Saxon colonists used various strategies to dispossess Indigenous lands in the Pacific Northwest, but regardless of strategy, across the region, the effect was the same. In Washington, tribal reservations comprise less than seven per cent of the state's land mass. In British Columbia, First Nation reserves comprise a paltry 0.4 per cent of the province.

The water — the oceanic commons — might be threatened or even dominated by a gunboat or oil tanker, but it could never be dispossessed and privatized like the lands were. On the water, the balance of power between Indigenous Peoples, corporations and governments tilts further in First Peoples' favour than it does on land.

In Washington, for example, provisions of the Stevens treaties bolstered by the landmark 1974 Boldt decision allocated up to half the state's fisheries to tribes. Similarly, Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982 — reinforced by the 1990 R v. Sparrow and 1996 Van der Peet cases — protects First Nations' priority in Canadian fisheries.

This, in my mind, is part of why the Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest retain such strong seafaring traditions. There's more time, space and freedom out on the seas to be Indigenous.

Liberation in the Salish Sea

In recognition of the rightful and enduring Indigenous presence on these waters, Washington state and British Columbia officially renamed Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia collectively as the Salish Sea in 2010.

Before we departed Esquimalt Harbour, Joe stood up in the canoe and in his rich and resonant voice thanked the Esquimalt Nation and ancestors for their hospitality.

Joe Seymour is one of the skippers with the Squaxin Island canoe crew as part of the Tribal Canoe Journey. (Julian Brave NoiseCat)

As we pulled out into the Salish Sea, as canoes have for generations, we entered a space where our limits were determined more by the power of the water and our collective will to navigate it together than by boundaries erected by politics and upheld by economics. It felt liberating.

That feeling is part of what keeps Joe and so many others on the canoe journey coming back, year after year.

"I've always had this connection with the water," he told me. "I've always felt it's where I've belonged the most."

Joe was raised with his mother's people on Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. He spent four years in the Marine Corps, after enlisting at the age of 17, before moving back to his father's homeland on the Squaxin Island reservation in Washington. There, he started a career scuba diving for geoduck — a burrowing clam indigenous to the Pacific that can grow to over a metre in length.

He has made a living harvesting geoduck on the seafloor for two decades. But it's the canoe journeys across the Salish Sea that mean the most to him.

"I really didn't know anything about our Squaxin culture, but being part of the canoe family really woke up that part of my spirit," he explained.

"It's because of the canoe family that I learned how to make drums, I learned how to carve paddles. I became involved with our drum group. So it's because of being on the water that I was able to use my loud voice to speak for my family."

Counting prayers on the water

Joe's father passed away in 2009. His mother walked on last year. Today was his first day skippering the Salish Seas since her death.

"I can't imagine being away from the water," he said. "I don't want to think about being away from the water."

As we passed Victoria, we counted out 100 powerful and prayerful pulls for Joe, his parents and the ancestors. Throughout the journey, crews will count out their prayers for their loved ones and ancestors through their paddle strokes on the water. It's a custom that will be repeated countless times by countless canoes on our voyage to Campbell River.

With the tide slack, our paddles pulling in unison and our families and ancestors in our hearts, we made good time rounding Victoria. But as the bow of our canoe turned north around Ten Mile Point, the easternmost tip of Vancouver Island, we got caught in a rip current. We fought the mighty sea but could not make any headway and had to call in our support boat for a tow.

"My first role as a skipper is to keep everybody safe," said Joe. "I've been in a canoe when it's flipped over. There's a lot of confusion. There's possibility for serious injury."

Joe made the right call. After a short rest on Mount Douglas Beach, we pulled the final leg of the day's journey into the Tsawout First Nation, where we sang, danced and feasted with our hosts and about 30 other canoes for two days.

Julian Brave NoiseCat stands by Nokedjak, the Squaxin Island canoe, during a rest stop on Mount Douglas Beach. (Aleta Poste)

We planned to rest well and depart Tsawout at 8 a.m. on Friday, July 28. But the Salish Sea had different ideas. A windstorm was coming in, and to beat it out of Tsawout waters, our hosts informed us that we had to be out on the water by 5 a.m.

The Salish Sea may be named for the Salish nations whose homelands fan out across its waters, but here it is the sea that is master of the Salish, not the other way around.

"I've been around the water so long, I understand how strong the spirit of the water is," Joe reflected. "When we go out there, we're at the mercy of the water."