Canoe Journey: A trip out of the mainstream

The Nisqually tribe’s Ox clan had the floor, big as a basketball court, on the afternoon we were there. Women danced in blankets for ailing relatives and to constellations, while a clot of male drummer beat shallow hand drums.

Once a year, hundreds of paddlers from around Salmon Nation travel by canoe to gather together as part of Tribal Journeys. It’s a journey out of the mainstream, and into a place governed by a different sort of rhythm and time – paddlers pulling in unison, tribal drums and song, the call of names upon names, as the elders, ancestors, friends, and relatives are paid tribute. Paddlers, young and old, native and non-native, spend several weeks (and up to two months for the farthest tribes) working their way across the cold Salish Sea, dealing with swells and currents, eddies and rocks, weather and freighters in narrow craft. This years’ Paddle to Quinault ended near Taholah, WA  on the wave-lashed shores of the Quinault Indian Reservation. Paddlers spent so much time getting wet that it became a rite of passage. In the throes of the Salish were several members of Ecotrust’s native leadership community, including Brian Cladoosby.

As the paddlers arrived at Quinault and beached a mix of dugout, strip, and molded canoes in a flotilla of more than forty – some older version of the modern marina – six days of dancing, drumming, feasting, gift giving, and oration began. All of it was somewhat opaque to this uninitiated, non-tribal observer. But one thing was clear to me, sitting in bleachers of the Protocol tent, in clearing on a forested bluff about Quinault’s Point Grenville beach, watching the ceremonies unfold over hours: this was about re-affirming the strength of tribal relationships and networks, something that takes constant nurturing but which the modernized market of timeclocks, just-in-time delivery, and hourly rates renders nearly impossible. In the Protocol tent, each paddling crew and extended family ( transported over land) came to offer dances and gifts to the hosts and fellow paddlers. Here is where the tribal members did their careful work of building back ties that had been eroded but not erased over the last few centuries of struggle. Again and again, speakers paired the words “Native” and “strong,” with aspiration in their voices. Again and again, they spoke of gains on the drug and alcohol addiction that’s wracked Native communities.

The Nisqually tribe’s Ox clan had the floor, big as a basketball court, on the afternoon we were there. Women danced in blankets for ailing relatives and to constellations, while a clot of male drummer beat shallow hand drums. The entire Nisqually council rose one by one from their semi-circle of chairs at one end of the floor to extoll the growing strength of the Nisqually people and to thank the Quinault.

And then came the challenge dance. It had been handed down from an elder who had passed on, we were told. He’d taught some of the Nisqually to sing, drum and dance this particular wolf dance, and they spent several deliberate minutes tracing how it had been passed down and who else had learned it. The Ox clan leader then walked onto the floor and asked crowd if anybody wanted to accept the challenge to to dance with them. And he told the onlookers to turn off their cameras. “No video,” he said firmly, and even the official videographer unshouldered his camera and sat down.  A hush swept through the stands. A singer emerged from a swelling crowd of drummers at the back of the floor and opened with a long, guttural song, performed a capella. A dancer in wooden wolf headdress moved through the drummers, partially shielded from the crowd by a cloth sheet. The drummers began and as they grew louder, the dancer began to howl and took to the floor with three other men who’d accepted the challenge; they were ringed by a circle of female dancers in dark blankets, gently stepping in place. The men coursed into more emphatic steps, looking intently at the tent ceiling and, seemingly, to the sky beyond. They grew more and more entranced, and the drumming reverberated through the tent, reaching out and enveloping the crowd, too. For three rounds of maybe 10 minutes each (there was no visible clock) the men pounded and wheeled around the floor athletically. They rested briefly in each intermission.

By the end of the third round, the wolf-headed man looked spent and retired, howling, to one end of the tent. One of the challengers called for a fourth round. The drums rose again and he stepped and twirled, crooking his elbow around the front of head as he moved. The music thumped to an end, and as the challenger caught his breath, hands over head, chest heaving, he let out a long, deep “Whooooooo!”  The crow volleyed back with its own cheer. “Twenty years ago,” he continued, “I would have been dead in the ground, except for canoe family and some of the people here.” He listed off some key elders and mentors who we understood to have led him out of the depths of addiction. He paused to catch his breath. “Canoe family!” he said finally.  “Hands up to you! Whoooo!”