En route to the territory of the Heiltsuk First Nation, pullers in the 2014 Canoe Journey traveled through territory so beautiful it will be impossible to forget: Rugged, forested coastlines; island-dotted straits and narrow, glacier-carved passages; through Johnstone Strait, home of the largest resident pod of orcas in the world, and along the shores of the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world.
They also traveled waters that are increasingly polluted and under threat.
Pullers traveled the marine highways of their ancestors, past Victoria, British Columbia, which dumps filtered, untreated sewage into the Salish Sea. They traveled the routes that U.S. energy company Kinder Morgan plans to use to ship 400 tanker loads of heavy crude oil each year.
Canoes traveling from the north passed the inlets leading to Kitimat, where heavy crude from Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline would be loaded onto tankers bound for Asia, a project that Canada approved on June 17.
Canoes from the Lummi Nation near Bellingham passed Cherry Point, a sacred and environmentally sensitive area where Gateway Pacific proposes a coal train terminal; early site preparation was done without permits and desecrated ancestral burials.
Young activist Ta’kaiya Blaney of the Sliammon First Nation sang of her fears of potential environmental damage to come in her song, “Shallow Waters”:
“Come with me to the emerald sea / Where black gold spills into my ocean dreams.
“Nothing to be found, no life is around / It’s just the sound of mourning in the air.”
Canoes from Northwest indigenous nations arrived in Bella Bella, British Columbia on July 13; the gathering continues until July 19 with cultural celebrations, a rally against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, and an indigenous economic summit. The ceremonies are being livestreamed online at Tribal Canoe Journeys 2014 :: Qatuwas Bella Bella.
Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Yupiit Nation and member of the board of First Stewards, noted that the Canoe Journey route calls attention to the fragile environment that’s at stake. First Stewards, an indigenous environmental advocacy group, will host a symposium on “Sustainability, Climate Change & Traditional Places” from July 21–23 in Washington, D.C.
“The Canoe Journey is a really big statement to us to hang onto our culture and our way of life, and to bind people together,” said Williams, who is also a well-known musher. “In the Iditarod, there are pristine places but there are also old mining towns [on the route] where we’re told not to drink the water.”
The parallels between the water issues encountered on the Iditarod and the Canoe Journey are unmistakable, he added.
“In the Canoe Journey, there are pristine waters and there are waters that contains toxic substances,” Williams said. “There’s oil and the continuous leaking of pipelines. It happens.”
Not only does it happen, but it does not go away. Prince William Sound has never totally recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Williams said. Likewise, he added, if the Northern Gateway pipeline, the coal trains and increased shipping come to fruition, an environmental disaster is inevitable.
“It’s going to happen,” Williams said. “There has to be total, thoughtful conversation for everyone—consider all the possible impacts. And there has to be meaningful consultation with the tribes. They have to weigh in on that. We’ve got to make it 100 percent fail-safe or don’t do it.”
State Senator John McCoy, D-Tulalip, is a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes. He is the ranking member of the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, which focuses on such issues as climate change, water quality, toxic chemical use reduction and cleanup, and management of storm water and wastewater.
“I think the message is, pollution is occurring everywhere,” McCoy said of the takeaway from the Canoe Journey. “It’s a worldwide problem, and it needs to be addressed. If we keep polluting our water, we’re going to be in big trouble. Water is the essence of life.”
Canoes were underway for Bella Bella on July 9 as Governor Jay Inslee announced that he wants to increase the recommended fish-consumption rate in the state from 6.5 grams to 175 grams a day—that’s good news for indigenous peoples, for whom fish is important culturally, spiritually and as a food. But for 175 grams of fish to be considered safe to eat, businesses that pollute will have to conform to tougher pollution control standards.
Inslee’s plan for how toxic substances will be controlled in expected in December. It will require legislation, McCoy said.
Jewell James is coordinator of the Lummi Treaty Protection Task Force and a leader in the effort to prevent a coal train terminal from being built at Cherry Point, a sacred area for the Lummi people and an important spawning ground for herring, an important food for salmon.
James said environmental degradation is just part of a series of historical traumas set upon Indigenous Peoples: First, the diseases that came after contact; then the treaty era and the relocation to reservations; then the cultural and spiritual oppression of the boarding school era, and then the termination era.
“Yet we continue to exist,” James said. And the Canoe Journey, now in its 23rd year, has helped “revitalize and breathe new life into our cultural knowledge” given that journey gatherings are venues for the passing down of stories about how the ancestors lived in and cared for the environment that sustained them.
James hopes people on the Canoe Journey connect with and carry on those stories and values.
“There are messages in those stories,” he said. “And within those stories there are sacred symbols that mean something—that you have to be careful with what you do, and others have to be careful with what they do, to Mother Earth.”
Indeed, the current climate crisis indicates a loss of connection with those stories and the realities they represent, said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Nation and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. Outspoken on issues related to climate change and environmental protection, she said catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and the wildfires in California and Washington may be headline stories today, but the ancestors would have viewed them as a symptom of a larger problem—a disconnect between humanity and nature. She expressed the hope the Canoe Journey will restore that connection.
“That generation on the water right now—they are keys to success in the future,” Sharp said. “They will be the ones that will carry on the message that we can’t do those things we know are harmful to our fragile ecosystem.”
The Canoe Journey is itself a tool to monitor the health of the sea. In each Canoe Journey since 2008, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), several canoes carry probes that collect water data and feed the data into a recorder aboard the canoe. The data measures water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity. The USGS is using the data to track water quality and its effects on ecosystem dynamics and has posted results from 2008-2013 at Coast Salish Tribal Journey Water Quality Project – A Blending of Science and Tradition.
It’s the Canoe Journey’s first return to Bella Bella since 1993, when canoes made the long journey north to fulfill a vision of Canoe Journey founders Emmett Oliver and Frank Brown after the 1989 Paddle to Seattle, which took place as part of Washington’s centennial celebration. The 1993 journey sparked a revival in indigenous travel on the marine highways of the ancestors.
En route to the final destination, canoes visit indigenous nations along the way, each stop filled with sharing: traditional foods, languages, songs, dances and teachings. Pulling great distances can test the puller’s physical readiness and mental discipline. Traveling the way of the ancestors can be a spiritual experience, and songs often come to pullers on the water.
This journey was as challenging as the 1993 journey; pullers pulled through passages and channels and had to time each transit right so that they weren’t toiling against the tide.
More than 100 canoes participated in last year’s journey to the Quinault Nation. The distance and isolated destination in this year’s voyage requires as much as a month off for many pullers and support crews; Heiltsuk First Nation is hosting 31 canoes this year, according to the 2014 Paddle to Bella Bella Facebook page.