Paddle To Lummi

Honoring a way of life


What: Paddle to Lummi

When: Wed., Jul. 24 -28

Where: Stommish Grounds, Lummi Nation

Cost: Free

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

They touched the shore of the Olympic Peninsula on the weekend and were greeted in the Klallam language. Coastal tribes from Washington and British Columbia were welcomed to the revitalized estuary of the Elwah by youth of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe for the first time since 2005.

Growing in numbers as they travel, tribes paddle to Port Townsend, and on to Port Gamble, greeting and merging with other tribes as they travel the Salish Sea to Lummi. They’re expected to arrive July 24.

The Paddle to Lummi is underway.

“The Lummi people are honored to welcome all our relations traveling the traditional highways of our ancestors to participate in this year’s journey,” said Jeremiah Julius, Chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council. “Together we will celebrate, honor and share the unique cultural heritage of the Coast Salish people.”

Julius said they expect approximately 10,000 people and more than 100 canoe families on their ancestral shores–-something he says will help build strong bridges with neighboring communities.

“Over the years we have witnessed the discipline the canoe journey has taught our younger generations,” Julius said. “Honoring our way of life in sharing who we are and where we come from.”

Sqweshenet Tse Schelangen means “honoring our way of life” and is the overarching theme of this year’s canoe journey along the waterways of Western Washington, hosted this year by Lummi Nation. Lummi is also called by another, more ancient name—Lhoq’temish—meaning People of the Sea.

Each year since 1898, canoe families traveling from up and down the Washington coast, Oregon, and lower British Columbia meet and gather with guests from around the world and exchange songs, dance, food and cultural heritage. The event is hosted by different Native Nations each year.

The Canoe Journey is a revival of the traditional method of transportation and is a culturally significant experience for participants. On arrival, visiting canoe families ask permission to land, often in their native languages. Protocol—the sharing of songs, dances and gifts—lasts for days.

The ancestral tradition of the canoe journey was revived in full form in Washington in 1989, as part of the state’s centennial ceremony, and has continued to flourish almost a quarter of a century later. The journey is symbolic of the potlatch, the ancient communal gathering of tribal nations banned at the opening of the last century by both Canada and Washington.

The journey involves traditional ocean-going canoes, primarily of carved cedar, placed in the waters of this region in a blessing ceremony. The journey celebrates the ancestral traditions and living culture through a potlatch of storytelling, singing and dancing.

“This is who we are. This is how we tell our story,” said Freddie Lane, public relations director. He serves as a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council.

More than 100 canoes are expected to land at the Stommish Grounds on Lummi peninsula on July 24—an increase from the 72 canoe families who paddled into Bellingham Bay in 2007. Tribal leaders expect thousands of participants, Lane agreed, as tribes strengthen and deepen their connections to the Salish Sea.

Lummi Nation invites all coastal native tribes as well as the public to join them in celebration, to honor and preserve the cultural heritage unique to the Coast Salish people.

“The canoe journey is highly regarded among the Coast Salish tribes,” Lane explained, gesturing across the watery shore. “For it honors and connects us to the land, water and earth as well as our neighboring communities.”

“Hope, Honor, Healing, and Hospitality,” the guiding principles of the journey, are qualities taught and passed down from generation to generation.

Many canoe families begin training for this event in mid-April when they first put their canoes in the water. This event is referred to as “awakening” the canoes.

During their journey, families will paddle for a week or more, some traveling very long distances and through often treacherous waterways. They make stops along the route to other neighboring tribes who greet them with a warm reception and shared meal.

Lummi Nation reached out to coastal peoples from all cardinal points, from deep in British Columbia to the terminus of Puget Sound and the Pacific coast. Tribes south of Seattle, including the Nisqually and Muckelshoot, placed their paddles in the water July 13. Tribes from the coast of Washington, such as the Quinault and the Makah, join First Nation tribes coming from British Columbia to enter the Salish Sea from the north. Tribes along the Inner Passage as far north as Alaska join the journey and bring with them tribal guests from as far away as Hawaii, New Zealand, and Papua, New Guinea. These more distant tribes put their canoes in near Seattle and journey north.

Local tribes, such as the Tulalip, Swinomish, and Samish, will host landings of their own, sharing in meals and gift-giving before joining the Paddle. All plan to arrive at the Stommish Grounds in a swelling ceremony on July 24.

As they approach the Stommish landing, each canoe will circle around with what is known as a victory lap, Lane explained. The calm waters of Hale Passage, which separates Lummi Island from the mainland, come alive as the canoes maneuver into place. They line up and approach the landing beach.

Bill James—Tsi’li’xw, hereditary chief of Lummi Nation—will greet each and every canoe.

“Paddles up” signals the request of these families to come ashore, and signifies they come in peace to this potlatch. Granted permission to land their canoes, Tsi’li’xw welcomes them ashore in the native Lummi tongue, a language that at one time was dying out. Now scores of tribal members can speak at least some portions of the language.

“They are invited to join in the dining, singing, dancing and much storytelling,” Chief James said. “Then do it some more, night after night until each tribe has had their turn on the floor,” he added.

Potlatch activities, the telling of stories and history through drumming and dance, continue throughout the following five days.

It has been the mission of Tsi’li’xw to revive his native tongue as well as the Lummi traditions. He views the canoe journey as a powerful way to “preserve, promote, and protect the culture.”

His hope is to encourage the young people to be proud of who they are as individuals, as well as where they have come from as a cultural people. He reaches out by teaching his native tongue to the younger generations, many who sit in his home. He is encouraged to witness the language being taught in schools, once again.

Despite decades of adversity, Tsi’li’xw says, “Through our culture, we are still alive.”

The canoe journey and the arrival at Lummi are times for intertribal cultural exchange and sharing in friendship as well as traditions.

“It is the return of the potlatch, which once was banned,” Freddie Lane explained. “Now it has come full circle.”

Over the five days of July 24-28, there will be discussions on current events, nightly dinners, youth games, and many giveaways. Respect and sharing are the guiding principles. The festivities are open to the public and include arts and crafts, food vendors, music and, of course, canoes.

The event will culminate with traditional potlatch song, dance, gift-giving, singing, dancing, and testimonies of the journey that organizers say have provided their people with hope, healing and happiness preserving their way of life.

Visitors to the area as well as those in the greater Bellingham and Whatcom County community are welcome.

As we parted, Freddie Lane said, “Lummi Nation is honored to open our doors and welcome everyone.”

To find out more visit
MaryRose Denton is a freelance writer and traveler, living in the Skagit Valley.

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