Paddle to Paris

Lummi Youth join the kayaktivists

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Lummi Youth Canoe Family will be traveling to Paris for the United Nations climate negotiations, Dec. 5 - 12, 2015. They are joining the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Indigenous Delegation to Paris and their Canoes to Paris action. The 17 members of the Lummi Youth Canoe Family will have their great 38 foot traveling canoe barged to Europe to paddle to Paris together with other indigenous canoe people from Norway, the Amazon, Great Lakes and kayaktavists from Europe.

“Our canoe family will travel to  Paris to inform the world about our waters, our air, our lands and impacts of global warming in our community, said Justin Finkbonner, skipper of canoe family. “It will be an honor to usher our kids into a once in a lifetime opportunity to see leadership on a global scale and learn about other activities that the world is working on. I dream that our youth will return home to our Salish communities wanting to unite youth councils from around the territory to learn about how they can make a difference.”

The group needs help covering the cost of shipping the canoe across the ocean and covering the costs of our travel, lodging, and food. You can assist them at


Before there were roads, interstate highways, light rail systems and airports, there were… canoes. For thousands of years, Native people living on the Salish Sea, the area along the southwest coast of British Columbia and the northwest coast of the United States, used canoes not just for travel, but also as a profound form of cultural expression. Their creation and use were spiritual, teaching respect, camaraderie and selflessness. They used no fossil fuels and created no pollution. And they were powered by the most mysterious of engines, the human heart. So what could be more fitting to use when confronting a 307-foot-tall giant capable of poisoning vast areas of ocean and shoreline?

That’s what happened when Royal Dutch Shell brought the massive offshore oil-drilling rig, Polar Pioneer, to Seattle’s Terminal 5 in May. A flotilla of Natives in canoes joined the ranks of environmental activists in kayaks that day to protest the rig’s arrival. Among them was Justin Finkbonner, a member of the Lummi Nation, a canoe skipper and creator of a Lummi youth program called The Awakening. For him, the protest, which culminated two days later, was more than just a chance to speak out. It was a powerful teaching moment for the youth in his program.

The emotional power of canoe travel was demonstrated when Finkbonner instructed his crew to paddle within a few hundred yards of the skyscraper high oil rig instead of remaining some distance away at the mouth of the Duwamish River.

“Bill Moyer, head organizer of the Backbone Campaign, said to lead the kayaks to the mouth of the river, stop and do our speeches. I said, ‘Hell no! I’m going up the river to the rig and bring the kayakers up there to surround it.’ The kayakers followed, hence the pictures.”

A picture of Finkbonner standing in a Native canoe at the base of the oil rig, surrounded by kayakers and canoe families was shared widely on social media after the protest. The passion exhibited by this bravado has roots that go back decades.

Many Natives have painful memories of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 that dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Because of the resulting loss of marine life, the subsistence lifestyle of the local Alaska Native people collapsed, resulting in long-term emotional trauma, increases in domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and damage to social relationships.

But Royal Dutch Shell doesn’t appear concerned about that tragedy, nor about the spill caused by British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Not to mention the May 19 oil pipeline rupture in Santa Barbara County that released more than 20,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific. When the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recently granted conditional approval for Shell to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off the northern coast of Alaska, the multinational energy corporation began moving the Polar Pioneer to Seattle, where it’s currently being prepped and outfitted for drilling in the Arctic. Protesters liken this to preparing a time bomb to go off in a heretofore untouched and pristine environment.

“But the greater story is about the Duwamish tribe,” Finkbonner revealed.

Along the Duwamish

Terminal 5 sits on land the Duwamish people had lived on for an estimated 10,000 years. In 1855, the Duwamish and several other tribes from the area signed the Treaty of Point Elliott, in which they gave up 54,000 acres of land in return for hunting and fishing rights and four reservations. Since then the tribe has seen the river that bears their name turned into a sewer, where byproducts of manufacturing processes were dumped indiscriminately for years.

Finkbonner, a Lummi and resident of the Lummi Reservation, first became involved with the Duwamish when he worked for the Potlatch Fund, a Native grant-making and leadership development organization in Seattle. Representatives of several local foundations approached him asking if he would assist the Duwamish in applying for grants to build a longhouse. He worked with Duwamish chairwoman Cecile Hansen and together they raised 2 million. In 2009, the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center was opened near the mouth of the Duwamish River.

“They were given [federal] recognition by the Clinton administration, but then turned over when Bush Jr. came into power and vetoed the bill,” Finkbonner said. “Now the government is holding them back for another seven to 10 years from being considered.”
Finkbonner’s frustration is understandable. Gaining federal recognition as a tribe strengthens sovereignty, creating a government-to-government relationship with the United States and facilitating federal budget assistance and other services.

To this atmosphere of political oppression and environmental recklessness, Finkbonner brings the healing power of the Native canoe. In his program, The Awakening, young people of his tribe learn the old way of travel, pulling together as one unit to bring help and healing to another tribe. Their common destination is as much internal as it is external: “Ignite the people. Bring fire to our hearts. Cedar smoke from our collective spirit will rise to the edge of the sky, where our ancestors are dancing forever.”

In all the hoopla surrounding the controversy and protests, it’s good to be reminded of the bigger picture, of which the mountainous oil rig is just a little piece.

This article originally appeared in Indian Country Today and is reprinted with permission.

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