2019 Tribal Canoe Journeys - What is protocol?

By Piripi Taylor

Protocol is intrinsic to the annual tribal canoe journeys of the First Nations of the Pacific North West.  It is the ultimate gesture of giving thanks to a host by sharing the wealth of songs, dance, stories and crafts of a community.

This year a record 130-plus canoe families took the floor in the longhouse of the Lummi Nation, the 2019 hosts in an event which is highly anticipated by all participating tribal canoe families.

In full tribal regalia, women sing and dance with gentle steps and hand movements to the beating chorus of drums.

Janice Hicks-Bullchild of the Nisqually tribe says it is good medicine.

"After Canoe Journeys is over, I feel really powerful, like I can conquer the world," she says.

Canoe Journeys veteran of over 20 years, Phillip Lockerbie-Point of the Skowkale and Musqueam tribes agrees.

"Protocol is our culture to the max, sharing and expressing our identity," he says. 

Only the men play the drums.  When they dance, they whip into a frenzy of energy, stomping and spinning with arms stretched wide as if they were an eagle soaring.

Lockerbie-Point says it's a way of life.

"It's something that we've always done, along with hunting and fishing.  The drum, the singing is a very big part of our culture."

The spirit that envelops the children when they dance is truly something to witness.

Teenager, Cameron Yanity of the Samish and Stillaguamish tribes, is attending for the first time.

He says, "I'm learning a lot, especially about my culture because I never really got out much and then when I heard about this I was like 'alright, well I guess I'll do it some year'.  This is my year."

Yanity says, "It's really fun learning about the culture, learning about other tribes' music and everything."

Since the day after the landing, protocol has been running 24 hours a day over three days, the house constantly full of people in order for all groups to get their time on the floor.

Lockerbie-Point says, "When you're here it's family and it is very good when you see people open up."

Sam Barr of the Samish tribe says that while they "do this stuff at home to fill the spirit", what he looks forward to most about coming here is getting to see everybody else.

"Different communities have different teachings and they're all the same but different."   

Each tribe will conclude their protocol by exchanging gifts and asking permission to take leave with their canoes.  Once every group has stood, the host nation then closes with their songs, dances as well as a feast and all look towards Nanaimo in Canada, who will host next year.