“Honoring our Way of Life” Paddle to Lummi 2019

Late this month, the people of the Lummi Nation will welcome more than 10,000 guests arriving by canoe. The annual Canoe Journey ends on Lummi land for the first time since 2007. The four-day event, which starts on July 24, is a celebration between several Native Nations, with special guest tribes traveling from as far as New Zealand, Maui, and Papua New Guinea. The majority of the tribes will paddle from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. The Canoe Journey is an annual opportunity to honor the unique relationship the tribes have with the land, water, and each other.

The first Canoe Journey, called Paddle to Seattle, occurred in 1989 alongside the signing of the Centennial Accord, an agreement between the state of Washington and the federally recognized tribes. The intention of the Accord was to “build trust and confidence among the parties in the government-to-government relationship.” Today, the annual Canoe Journey provides an opportunity for tribes to come together and set aside their differences. “We have more in common than we do different,” Councilman Fred Lane says.

While only 15 tribes and seven canoes participated in the first Paddle to Seattle, the Canoe Journey has since grown in size and splendor. At last year’s Paddle to Puyallup, more than 100 canoes arrived via their “ancestral highways.” Before Washington was settled, the Native Nations used the waters as their main mode of transportation, often traveling great distances and making many stops along the way. The Canoe Journey celebrates this tradition, imitating the tribes’ ancestral routes. This year, as the tribes journey to Lummi, they will stop at several locations throughout the Sound.

When arriving at a new location, the pullers of the canoe will hold their paddles in front of them as a gesture of peace. They then ask permission of the host tribe to come ashore. Once on land, the visitors will show their appreciation by sharing gifts and dances unique to their culture. In exchange, the hosts provide food and shelter for the duration of the guest tribe’s stay. After their visit, the tribes continue on to the final destination.

While the Canoe Journey is a celebration of cultures, it’s also a time of joining forces for worthy causes. One current cause involves returning a killer whale named Lolita—Lummi name Tokitae—to her rightful home. Tokitae was taken in 1970 from the Southern Resident L-pod and is now captive at the Seaquarium in Miami, Florida. Experts believe her tank is smaller than the minimum size requirements established by the Animal Welfare Act and lacks cover from the scorching Florida sun. Tokitae has been in isolation since 1980 when her tank mate, Hugo, died after repeatedly hitting his head on the walls of the tank. The tribes want to provide a home for Tokitae in a rehabilitation sea pen in the Sound where she would be fed salmon and could make acoustic contact with her family before eventually returning to the wild.

The Lummi people pride themselves on what they call the “5 H’s: hope, honor, healing, happiness, and hospitality,” Lane says. The Lummi have the saying, “When the tide is out, our table is set,” meaning that, while the tide is out, people will harvest the shellfish and other seafood to serve at the large feast. “With us, hospitality is the main goal. We take care of our people when they visit,” says Lummi Indian Business Council vice chairman Travis Brockie.

Although the area is usually reserved for tribespeople, the Lummi nation is excited to invite the general public to the four-day celebration. It’s recommended to bring a lawn chair and a cooler of water (this is a drug and alcohol-free event), as the late-July days can get quite hot. There will be crafts, food, and other activities, but the main event will be the arrival of the Canoe Families on July 24. The arrivals will commence the potlatch—a traditional celebration of song, music, dance, gifts, and food—which will last until July 28, stretching into the wee hours of the morning and beginning again each day at 9 a.m.

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"While the Canoe Journey is a celebration of cultures, it’s also a time of joining forces for worthy causes."