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Congressman Denny Heck

Representing the 10th District of Washington

Canoe journey honors heritage

Aug 3, 2016
In The News

Last Saturday, thousands of people gathered on the Port of Olympia peninsula to witness the arrival of this year’s tribal canoe journey. About 100 canoes full of people who paddled from Alaska, British Columbia, the Washington coast and Puget Sound tribes were welcomed this year by the Nisqually Tribe.

The culmination of the canoe journey is a week-long celebration of native spirituality, singing, dancing and storytelling at the Nisqually Reservation, to which the public is invited.

Hosting the canoe journey is the tribal equivalent of hosting the Olympics. It requires creating a temporary village, complete with parking lots, camp grounds, showers, enormous tents for the singing and dancing, and a dining area capable of serving hundreds of people. There are also vendor booths selling native crafts, sage, and fry bread. And at this year’s Nisqually site, there is even a solar-powered phone charging station.

Nonetheless, Nisqually Chairman Farron McCloud says, “all of this is so spiritual, it doesn’t feel like work.”

Revival of traditions

That’s because the annual canoe journey celebrates the revival of tribal traditions that were disrupted by white settlement, forced relocation to reservations, and more than a century of government policies that devastated Indian communities and cultures.

But while much was lost, the core of Indian identity survived against all odds, and in the past few decades, tribes have begun to rebuild, restore and heal the deep wounds of the past. Finally, after so many years of defeat and destitution, tribes are claiming victory in restored fishing rights and recognition that treaties are the supreme law of the land. Tribal enterprises, including casinos, now provide what taxation does for other governments: vital public services, pathways out of poverty, and access to education and cultural enrichment. A new generation of Indian children are growing up learning their languages, immersed in traditional spiritual practices and steeped in the values of their ancestors.

All of that was commemorated in a solemn ceremony at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge last Sunday. For the first time since the Medicine Creek Treaty was signed there in 1854, representatives of the four signatory tribes — Nisqually, Squaxin, Puyallup and Muckleshoot — welcomed their canoes to the site. They met to honor the ancestors who, in an act filled with both the sorrow of surrender and will to survive, signed that document.

Under a brilliant blue sky and with a rising tide, the canoes coming ashore provided both a visual reminder and a sharp contrast to what was likely a cold gray day when the treaty was signed December 24, 162 years ago. The ceremony celebrated survival and continuity, and the role the treaty has played — after decades of battles in the rivers and in the courts — in winning the rights of tribes to fish, hunt and gather, and to be recognized as sovereign nations within a nation.

Safeguarding salmon

Those hard-won victories have done more than revitalize tribal cultures, spiritual lives, governments and economies. They have been a boon to salmon. Recent court decisions have clarified that the tribes’ treaty right is not just to fish, but to actually catch fish — and that means that state, federal and local governments are obliged by the treaty to safeguard the needs of fish for cool, clean water in creeks, rivers and lakes, for habitat restoration, and for the restoration of Puget Sound. That is why the theme of this year’s canoe journey and weeklong gathering is “don’t forget the water.”

As Rep. Denny Heck of Olympia noted at the ceremony, “The treaties are the most powerful tool we have for saving Puget Sound.” But he noted that his late friend and mentor Billy Frank Jr.’s tombstone reads, “We are running out of time.”

“Six species of salmon are now listed as threatened or endangered. So are the southern resident orca who depend on them as a food source. Restoring the health of Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it is urgent, and so, like those in the canoes, we must all pull together.”

This is the ultimate challenge for the health of our ecosystems, and for the continued progress of tribal revitalization, for no matter what new tribal enterprises come, fishing will always be the epicenter of tribal life.

So we hope our readers will respond to the Nisqually tribe’s invitation to visit this week’s gathering on their reservation, listen to the singing, dancing and stories with an open heart, and reflect on our obligations to them, to the salmon and to the water that sustains us all