MILLERSYLVANIA STATE PARK — At its most basic core, a canoe is a vessel for transportation. When approached with the proper reverence though, a traditional Native American canoe journey can be a path toward personal discovery, self-improvement and a communal relationship with the natural and spiritual world.
On Saturday, the Chehalis, Nisqually, Puyallup and Skokomish tribes worked together with the Washington State Parks Department to host the third annual Canoe Families Celebration at Millersylvania State Park south of Olympia. At its most basic level, it was a chance for visitors to take a free canoe ride in an authentic style tribal canoe while enjoying a free hot dog and s’mores snack lunch. For those willing to truly listen and participate, it was a chance to glean cultural insights through the traditional practices of area tribes.
Debbie Fant, program coordinator for the Washington State Parks Department, estimated that at least 500 people came out on Saturday for the free event. She noted that a similar event is held each year at Deception Pass, which sparked the idea to bring a gathering of tribes and thegeneral public to Millersylvania State Park.
“The local tribes decided that they would like to do something here because they’d been coming here with their grandparents and they wanted to do something that benefited their canoe families while opening the experience up to new generations of grandparents and families,” explained Fant.
Hanford McCloud is a canoe family skipper and tribal council member with the Nisqually Tribe and he has been involved with the Canoe Families Celebration since its inception.
“I’ve been doing it for three years because I just love paddling with a canoe family,” said McCloud, who noted that Millersylvania State Park was chosen as the location for the event due to the neutral proximity to the participating tribes as well as the dock access and placid waters of Deep Lake.
McCloud said one goal of the event is to bring more awareness to the general public about the canoe journeys area tribes undertake each summer. He also noted that formal tribal canoe races have gained notoriety since the late 1980s when the events first started to get traction in the region. The nearest tribal canoe races are held by the Lummi and Swinomish tribes, and McCloud referred to the popularity of the gatherings as a cultural phenomenon.
Shannon Comenot, a Chehalis Canoe Family skipper and Quinault tribal member, has been paddling canoes since 2002 and first sat in the skipper seat in 2007. As a 10-year veteran at the age of 27, Comenot speaks with an eloquence that outpaces his years when he discusses the essential role of canoe journeys in tribal culture. Comenot explained that a canoe family is a collection of people who work together to undertake traditional canoe journeys that typically retrace ancestral trade and migration routes. However, Comenot noted that the point of a canoe journey is not simply to leave from one place and arrive at another. According to Comenot, the real journey is an internal, personal experience for each member of the canoe family.
“What we do out there is we heal. We heal the land, the water, the people,” explained Comenot, who compared time on the water to a constant, and conscious, state of prayer. “It’s a way of life. Going out on the water is the only thing unchanged since our ancestors.”
Comenot has an easy rapport with people that helped to keep the passengers in his canoe at ease on Saturday. He says that sort of personality management is part of the core duty of a canoe skipper so that each paddler in a canoe is able to work together harmoniously in order to achieve a common goal.
“It’s learning how to read the water, what’s going to happen where, and looking ahead,” said Comenot, who noted that traversing a lake is relatively easy, while rivers add a degree of difficulty and ocean travel can be downright dangerous.
“The easiest way to tell it is when we go out and do things we do it with one heart and one mind,” said Comenot, who always tries to avoid having his canoe “do the caterpillar” with different paddles moving at disjointed paces. “When we are all one heart and one mind we just glide across the water. We cut through it like a diamond through glass.”
The longest canoe journey Comenot has participated in started in Taholah and ended on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. With no road signs to indicate a location, Comenot says it requires a constant state of vigilance to remain confidently, and safely on course.
“It’s all about experience and knowing what to look for. The whole time you are looking or signs on the water to tell you where you are and what to do next,” explained Comenot. “My wife always makes fun of me and says you don’t really know where you’re going on the road. ‘You only know how to navigate on the water’… which is true.”
In addition to free hot dogs and s’mores, a traditional wood fire baked salmon lunch with fry bread was offered for just $10. The salmon and steelhead were provided fresh by the participating tribes, filleted on site and baked on a skewer over an open fire. Elders made sure that everything down to the fish heads was utilized in the correct capacity.
“That’s the way we have done our fish since the beginning of time,” noted Comenot.
While the intent of the event is to share a glimpse into authentic tribal traditions with the general public, McCloud wasted little time fretting over whether or not those lessons were truly being learned. He understands that it is human nature that some people will simply show up just for a free ride, and he doesn’t force anyone to take the experience any more serious than they want to.
“I let them do just what they need to do and they’re comfortable with,” said McCloud. “If they just want to go out and splash around in the water with their paddle, that’s fine.”
Proceeds from the salmon and fry bread lunch plates went into the coffers of the various canoe families as they prepare for the upcoming Tribal Canoe Journey. That journey will consist of tribes and nations from the Pacific Northwest as they travel by canoe to various communities along the shores of the Salish Sea, more commonly known as Puget Sound. In 2016, the Canoe Journey was hosted by the Nisqually Indian Tribe. This year, the Canoe Journey will be hosted by the We Wai Kai and We Wai Kum nations of British Columbia.