Tribal Canoe Journey Ends at Lummi

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A canoe of youth at the Paddle to Lummi 2007. photo: Beth Brownfield

by Betsy Pernotto

Part 1

The annual Tribal Canoe Journey (Paddle to Lummi 2019) will be held on July 24-28, 2019, at the Lummi Reservation. Community Connections Committee member Betsy Pernotto interviewed Freddie Lane, the director of Paddle to Lummi 2007, and currently a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council.

Interview With Freddie Lane

Betsy Pernotto: Tell me a bit about yourself.
My name is Freddie Lane. I was born and raised here on the Lummi Indian Reservation. I was number 11 of 12 children of Vernon and Nancy Lane, both Lummi. I’ve been a lifelong resident on Lummi Shore Road. My background is in public relations and communications, and I was recently elected to Lummi Indian Business Council. Since I have been on the tribal council, we have taken up the opportunity to host the Tribal Canoe Journey this year.

Give us a history of the Tribal Canoe Journey.
Freddie: The Canoe Journey has been going on for millennia along the Northwest Coast. It’s also commonly known as the potlatch. After many years of being outlawed, the Canoe Journey started up again in 1989 with the Paddle to Seattle. I think there were six or seven canoes that landed at Alki Beach in West Seattle in 1989. It has grown over the years from six canoes to about a hundred last year at Puyallup. In 2007 (when Lummi last hosted the Canoe Journey), we had our first potlatch in 70 years since the 1930s.

During the Tribal Canoe Journey, canoe families start from their individual villages, for example, out on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Canoes go village to village, stopping for the night, as they travel to their destination. From Quinault, a canoe would go next to the Hoh River tribe, then to Quileute, then to Makah. From Quinault they would start paddling on July 12 for a 12-day journey to Lummi. So tribal journeys are about bringing our families together in happiness and good times, really celebrating the spirit of the Salish people.

When we talk about protocol, we mean the cultural exchange where we share gifts, where we blanket our relatives. It’s really powerful to see all of our communities come together. The history of the potlatch began back in ancient times when the tribes from the north — the Haida, for example, would come down and have raiding parties on our villages here in the Salish Sea. They would steal our women and children and take them back to their villages. So those were warring times in the history of our people.

These days we have the potlatch, which (Lummi master carver) Jewell James calls the bloodless war, instead of raiding. In the past, the chief of a tribe would call for a potlatch and he would send out his best hunters and gatherers, his top fisherman and fisherwomen to get food for the potlatch. The people would make elaborate blankets and necklaces and jewelry to give away. The potlatch was not only the feast give-away, but a measure of ranking. The more a tribe gave away, the higher their rank, the more well-respected they were throughout the region.

When people talk about Lummi hosting the potlatch, they say, “Wow, those Lummis had a great potlatch with all different types of food, all different types of seafood, with elk and deer, with foods from the sea, with berries.” So that is really what the potlatch is about.

In 2007 when you were the director of Paddle to Lummi, what preparations did Lummi Nation have to make to host the Tribal Canoe Journey?
Freddie: Well, first we had to get the community on board, to get our elders and our youth involved. We had to make gifts for the potlatch — 10,000 necklaces, hundreds of cedar hats and regalia. We had 5,000 blankets to give away. We had to prepare for a mob of people — I’m talking about 20,000 people on the grounds. We had arts and crafts vendors, food vendors. Everybody arrived all at the same time.


Photo: Beau Garreau/Children of the Setting Sun Productions

When the canoes arrived, canoe families needed to know where the camping was, where the showers were, where food was being prepared. We had 2,500 volunteers who helped, and 17,000 people on the beach the day the 72 canoes came ashore. The canoe landing had to be timed with the tides and we had to coordinate with events in the community. Communications, good directions, a clear understanding, everybody (at Lummi) had to be on board because we were the hosts. When you are the host, you want to make sure that you offer the utmost hospitality for everybody that comes, everybody that steps into our territory. We want them to feel welcomed and loved.

Our motto for the Canoe Journey was to host in honor, hope, healing, happiness and hospitality. We managed to pull that off and host over 65,000 visitors throughout the eight days that canoes were ashore at Lummi. There were more than 50 tribes represented in 2007 at Paddle to Lummi. More than anything, it was a spiritual event for the return of the potlatch.

Potlatching was banned in Canada and suppressed in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We could not potlatch, we could not carry out our traditional celebrations. It was against the law for our people to gather in such a manner. It was really bad. So the canoe journey is a resurgence of our culture. I think things are coming full circle. You see our language returning, you see our traditions returning, you see our customs and our ability to celebrate with one another coming back.

Paddle to Lummi 2007 was a very historic moment for the nation, as we formed bridges with non-native communities — with Bellingham, with Ferndale, with Whatcom County, and with other neighboring tribes. We came together and celebrated and had a good time. That’s what the Canoe Journey is all about — coming together, celebrating, enjoying good times together, solidifying our relationships with the other Coast Salish Nations.

What happens at the Tribal Canoe Journey — when the canoes land and the ceremonies follow on the subsequent days?
Freddie: Every Canoe Journey is different because each one is hosted by a different tribe. Remember that not all of our tribes speak the same language, even though many of us speak American English. Lummi has its own language, the Swinomish have their own language, the Puyallup have their own language, the Chinook have their own language. We all have different customs, we all have different songs, we all have different dances, masks, and traditions.

When you see the canoes coming ashore, as they get closer to the village, they will do a soft landing on July 24 at Portage and at Fisherman’s Cove. We will have canoes coming from both directions, from the north and from the south. The southern delegation will probably have 40-50 canoes and the same number from the northern delegation. The first canoes to come ashore will be those that come the farthest distance.

The Hawaiians will probably come first and maybe before them the Maori and the tribal people from Papua New Guinea. Then the Alaskans, the Nuxalk from Bella Coola, the Port Hardy tribe from northern Vancouver Island will come and it will continue like that down to the closest tribes.

The same is true for the cultural exchange or what we call “protocol.” The first tribes to perform will be those that come from the farthest, such as the Papua New Guineans, the Hawaiians, the Maori, the Alaskans, and so on.

Some canoe families will have storytelling, others will have songs and dances. Sometimes the audience members might be asked to participate as a community member or just as somebody who is there. These dances are called friendship songs where everybody gets out and dances — men-and-women dances, the eagle dance, the crow dance. But this is not a powpow. It is coastal style celebration.

On July 24, people are advised to bring their own chairs, their own coolers with something to drink. But we are promoting this event as alcohol- and drug-free. Some canoe families are also tobacco-free. You can come and sit on the beach with us in the morning of Wednesday, July 24, as canoes start coming out of the south for a soft landing at 10 a.m. Then at 12 noon, they will start coming from the north.

Each canoe family will ask permission to come ashore. Sometimes three or four canoes come ashore together because they are from one tribe or one area. After the canoe landing, we will have a feast and move to the community center. Protocol will go all night and all day long for the rest of the Canoe Journey.

For you, what is the significance of the Tribal Canoe Journey?
Freddie: For me, this is about families coming together to honor each other, a great time to solidify our relationships that we have had with each other for hundreds of years. Some of our canoe families come a very long distance — from Vancouver Island and from all throughout the Salish Sea. It’s a beautiful time to come and relax and join in the festivities, joining with the different chiefs, the tribal leaders, the different skippers. Among canoe families, there is a joke that, on at least one canoe, someone will meet the love of his/her life, and people will get married on the Canoe Journey.

In 2003, I didn’t know anything about Canoe Journey. I was working with Uncle Smitty (James Hillaire) in communications and he asked me if I could help him host seven canoes coming through the Lummi territory on their way to the Paddle to Tulalip. It was so awesome to see the seven canoes come ashore because, generations ago, our relatives came to visit us by canoe. We say we are traveling the ancestral highways of our relatives — the rivers, the waterways of the Salish Sea.

Many years ago at Lummi, we used to bury our ancestors in the trees. But if there was a fisherman or a gatherer of clams or somebody who harvested food from the sea, we used to bury them in their canoe. We put their belongings in the canoe with their body, pushed the canoe out to sea as the tide was going out and drilled a small hole in the canoe so it would sink. That is why we say these waters are sacred because our ancestors’ bones are buried in these waters.

Canoe Journey signifies the return of our culture, the return of our language, and of our ability to come together in a positive way, not just for funerals or sad times, but to come together for a joyful event. We set aside all politics, we set aside all disputes because that’s not what canoe journey is about. Canoe Journey is about the importance of us coming together as human beings.

We have seen our communities fight over the years, but when we hosted the Canoe Journey in 2007, the community came out. They saw we are all neighbors, we all have children, we all have families. We can set aside our differences and we all have to realize that we are all Americans and we are all going to be neighbors for the next 10,000 years. How better to solidify our relationship with one another than coming together for a Canoe Journey, especially at Paddle to Lummi 2019.

Next Month
An interview with Becky Kinley, the current director of Paddle to Lummi 2019

Betsy Pernotto is a co-chair of Community Connections Committee which was formed to raise funds, increase awareness and recruit volunteers for Paddle to Lummi 2019.