"We're not raising children, we're raising elders" - Tribal Canoe Journey 2019 with Grand Ronde

By Piripi Taylor

The traumatic effects of colonisation on North America's indigenous first nations continues to reverberate across the country. Tribes of the Salish coast in the Pacific North West decided to do something about it and formulated a unique way to heal themselves from those effects in order to salvage their language, culture and pride. They call it the tribal canoe journey and for the past 30 years it has been critical for many nations.

Canoe traditions was all but lost to the people of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde after been removed from their traditional lands, oceans and rivers and placed in reservations in Portland Oregon. That all changed when they attended Tribal Canoe Journey to Elwha in Port Angeles in 2005 alongside their relatives, the Chinuk from the Colombia River.

Cultural Advisor of the Grand Ronde, Bobby Mercier remembers the feeling when they returned home that year.

"We were like, look here are all the pictures, these are the things we did, people we’ve seen, we’ve got to have our own canoes again."

"There was a connection there that was lost and it felt empty and when we got in those canoes and did all those things, man it just woke something back up."

That reawakening has had a significant impact on the revitalisation of their language and culture.

"It's gotten busier," he laughs.

"More people (are) turning back to our ways and wanting to make sure they're representing our ancestors in the best way possible."

Tribal Journey was born out of a need to promote drug and alcohol free lifestyles amongst Indian nations who were suffering from the severe effects of colonisation and intergenerational injustices. Effects which will take generations to recover from.

Christina Lara has done Canoe Journey since discovering it in her youth. She now works with the youth prevention programme as part of the Grand Ronde Social Services Department. Often they deal with young people who come from backgrounds of instability.

"As a community, the trauma that we've experienced really takes a toll sometimes on how we make decisions" she says.

"Our goal is to always provide these young people who struggle with things, a natural way to learn to continue to go forward."

“We always tell them if you don’t know your past, it’s kind of hard to move forward,” says Mercier.

“You kind of just stumble your way through life. We’re getting there.”

17yr old Wocus Lily has been on the Canoe Journey circuit with Grand Ronde for the last 3 years after having no involvement at all in anything cultural while growing up.

"I actually kind of wished it would just go away because it didn't really..." she pauses.

"(It) wasn't really a positive thing when I was younger," referring to the bullying and the treatment of indigenous students at school. 

"But I hit 13 and decided I was done feeling super uncomfortable. So I just sort of jumped head first in to it and I don't regret it for one second."

For 10 years Māori have joined with the Grand Ronde on the Tribal Canoe Journeys, sharing, learning and healing together. Native representatives have also travelled to Aotearoa to participate in waka activities over the years.

Alaina Capoeman of the Quinault tribe is a 17 year veteran of Canoe Journeys and skippers the Tana Stobs canoe from Suquamish. Last year she attended Waitangi and paddled on the canoe, Whānau Moana.

"I really enjoyed myself, it was so beautiful," says Capoeman.

"Everyone was so nice in explaining things to me and helping me understand and making sure I didn't do anything wrong but then I felt welcome the whole time."

The captain of Whānau Moana, Waimirirangi Conrad has also attended Canoe Journeys alongside her father, Joe Conrad, one of the captains of the mighty 123ft war canoe, Ngātokimatawhaorua that sits in the shelter below the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

Lara says she cannot imagine having a journey without someone from New Zealand representing in some way.

"It's a wonderful dynamic in the sense that it's so much learning happening between the two."

Bennie Armstrong has a close connection to Aotearoa and represented the First Nations at the tangihanga of esteemed waka builder and master navigator, Sir Hector Busby who died in May this year. 

Armstrong was the elected leader of the Suquamish tribe who hosted the very first tribal canoe journeys - The Paddle to Seattle - in 1989.

"For me it's about the waka kaupapa, the canoe culture that we're working with here," says Armstrong.

"To hear these little ones laugh and the laughter in these camps, that's what it's all about."

There is a philosophy amongst the people of Grand Ronde says Mercier. "We're not raising children, we're raising elders."

“We’re giving them the tools to be those elders and to be able to take care of the things that we’re leaving them with.”