PORT GAMBLE S’KLALLAM RESERVATION, Wash. — The canoe journeys are a new tradition for a very old people, but they already have one rigid rule that everyone knows not to break.
That thing you are paddling is called a canoe. Do not call it something else.
“If you call it a boat,” said Mariah Francis, 16, of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, “you’re either supposed to jump in the water or you’ll get thrown in.”
And as paddlers are reminded each year, the water here is cold.
For the 23rd summer in a row, a growing number of American Indians from tribes scattered across coastal regions of Washington State and British Columbia have climbed into traditionally designed cedar canoes and paddled as many as 40 miles a day, sometimes more, over two or three weeks, camping at a series of reservations until they converge at the home of a host tribe. There, several thousand people welcome them for a week of traditional dancing, singing and celebration.
They come from remote outposts like La Push, on the Pacific Ocean, and from wealthier tribes whose casinos rise above Interstate 5 north of Seattle, all in a deliberate effort to recapture cultural, linguistic and intertribal connections they said they had nearly lost as Indian ways of life were overwhelmed, first by European settlers and more recently by substance abuse and suicide.
“The first time we landed, the feeling was just unexplainable,” said Charlie Trevathan, a tribal member here in Port Gamble whose family first joined the journey in 2000. “I cannot put it into words. Ever since then, we’ve gone back every year.”
Now his extended family, like many, has became a “canoe family,” with its own cedar craft, family-themed red sweatshirts and flag. Mr. Trevathan, a commercial fisherman, makes a point every summer of putting the canoe journey before work, a deliberate reminder to himself that priorities once were very different among Northwest natives.
“There’s a shrimp opener soon and the price is supposed to be way up,” Mr. Trevathan said, referring to a brief coming fishing season. “My wife says, ‘Are you going shrimping?’ I said, ‘My commitment is to the canoe.’ The money would be good but it’s tribal journeys time.”
While some paddlers begin at reservations on the ocean, all eventually touch some portion of what the federal government in 2009 renamed the Salish Sea, the body of water that includes the Strait of Georgia in Canada, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. The sea is the ancestral home of the Coast Salish people, who were not bound by the international border now at the 49th parallel. Before settlers arrived and built roads, the sea was how most people traveled and traded, wearing hats made from cedar and relying on paddles and canoes carved by hand.
“It was the highway, the network that connected people throughout the region,” said Sasha Harmon, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington. “It was complicated after non-Indian families settled here, but it never went away. People had a really strong sense of the water connecting to them as a major force.”
Dr. Harmon said that as many Indian tribes across the country have worked to preserve their cultures in recent decades, the canoe journeys have been notable for restoring and strengthening “this intertribal communication, and that was a really important part of Northwest culture.”
When paddlers arrive at their destination each afternoon, they are greeted by members of the local tribe who paddle out to meet them. Tribes have revived rituals, what they now call “protocol,” to signal that they are visiting in peace.
“There’s a certain way they have to do it in order to show that they’re here in respect, not for war or destruction,” said Aurelia Washington, the coordinator of the event for this year’s host, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “They’re saying, ‘We come here to spend this week with you in celebration.’ ”
Starting Monday, more than 100 canoes will spend the next week at the reservation, celebrating around three new pavilions designed to resemble giant traditional cedar hats. The tribes will sing and dance directly across the Swinomish Channel from the little town of La Conner, a quaint Northwest port where retirees arrive in very different kinds of boats to dine on freshly caught fish and drink locally made beer and wine. The cultural divisions in the region are apparent in the street that crosses the channel: at one end it is called Pioneer Parkway, on the other Reservation Road.
But perhaps the most striking thing about the 2011 Paddle to Swinomish is that it is not a new beginning or a special anniversary. Instead, it reflects what so many of its participants say they had ached for before it existed: constancy and reconnection. Often the main paddlers are teenagers and young men and women, with their parents and elders taking turns as well, transferring every few hours from support boats. The entire event is intended to be free of alcohol and drugs.
“That is something that our elders have been praying for,” Ms. Washington said, “that our children would have a path forward without drugs and alcohol because we have battled so much.”
Among the paddlers who traveled the farthest this year was Cleve Jackson, the 16-year-old son of Shakey Jackson, the chief of the Quinault Tribe on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Shakey Jackson was among several tribal members who worked to revive the canoe tradition years ago, studying seagoing canoes in museum exhibits and even those on display in a Seattle restaurant, because none were left in their village.
Now in his 40s, Mr. Jackson lets his son do most of the paddling.
“I’m trying to wean myself from the boat,” Mr. Jackson said shortly after Cleve, who plays tight end and linebacker for Taholah High School, led his crew to shore.
No one suggested that the chief should go for a swim.