Tribal canoes participating in the Paddle to Seattle arrive at Golden Gardens Park on July 21, 1989.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/28/2016
  • Essay 20269
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On July 21, 1989, tribal canoes participating in the Paddle to Seattle arrive at the city's Golden Gardens Park. Seventeen tribes from around Puget Sound and the Washington coast have restored or built canoes, and tribal members have learned how to paddle in the open water of the Pacific Ocean and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. The occasion is part of Washington's centennial celebration and will develop into a nearly annual event known as Canoe Journey, with tribes and First Nations from Western Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska participating. Canoe Journey will also become a significant element in the revival of regional tribes' cultural traditions in the early twenty-first century.

Reviving an Art

Emmett Oliver (1913-2016), a member of the Quinault Indian Nation, an educator, and a member of the Washington State Heritage Council, served on the Maritime Committee of the Washington State Centennial Commission beginning in 1987. The committee planned to celebrate the discovery of Puget Sound by European explorers. Tribal members wanted to include recognition of Native maritime history -- specifically the history of canoes in Native culture and canoe travel across the region. The committee agreed, and Oliver was appointed coordinator of the Native American Canoe Project to plan a 1989 event called the Paddle to Seattle.

The first step was finding suitable logs and knowledgeable carvers to build the canoes needed for the journey. The art of creating dugout canoes from western red cedars had largely disappeared in Native communities due to a number of factors, including lack of access to old-growth cedar, the damage done to tribal cultural traditions by federal policies, and the widespread adoption of other modes of transportation.

Commercial logging of old-growth cedars left few trees of sufficient size to carve the large oceangoing canoes. To find logs of sufficient length and diameter, Oliver and others worked with private landowners, tribal governments, and state and federal agencies, including the United States Forest Service, to find logs that could be donated or harvested.

The access to trees in the national forests was itself a significant event. For decades, legislation designed to conserve and preserve natural resources and landscapes, such as national forests, excluded or restricted human activities. As a result, Native people could not visit traditional sacred places or gather materials needed for spiritual and cultural practices.

In 1978 Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which specifically called for the removal of barriers to the practice of Native cultural traditions. The U.S. Forest Service allowed the harvest of logs from federal land near Mount Baker by the Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Nooksack, and Lummi tribes. Other tribes found logs on their own lands or had them donated by private landowners.

Teaching the Techniques

Few tribe members had learned the skills and techniques needed to carve canoes. There was not much demand for canoes after steamers, ferries, and other motor vessels supplanted human-powered vessels in the early twentieth century, and even less after the introduction of automobiles and the widespread construction of roads. Also, active suppression of Native culture by the federal government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had reduced the passing down of Native arts to younger generations. This was exacerbated by the suppression of other cultural practices, such as fishing, for which Native people had once used their canoes.

In order to facilitate the dissemination of carving knowledge, Oliver and others worked with Native and non-Native carvers, such as Bill Holm (b. 1925), Steve Brown, David Forlines (1946-1991), and Duane Pasco (b. 1932), to teach tribal members how to shape a log into a canoe. The carvers had to learn how to use the tools and master a number of skills, including determining which side of a log would be best for the hull of a canoe, how thick the walls and floor should be, and how to carve the paddles. Many also learned to rig sails in the canoes, a practice that likely predated contact with Europeans.

Once the vessel took form and was ready to launch, the paddlers had to learn to handle the large oceangoing canoes, which could measure more than 50 feet in length. They could be unwieldy in open water; paddlers had to learn how to negotiate swells and currents and to paddle in sync. The lead puller at the bow helped keep everyone together, but considerable practice was necessary to learn to paddle effectively. David Forlines, who organized the Quileute Nation's 1989 journey, described that process: "We started as separate individuals and now we are a cooperating unit; we each started with our special difference and now we respect those differences " (Duncan).

More Than Just a Journey

Over time, the cultural activities practiced as part of the journeys have come to include language instruction, traditional arts, plant gathering for food and medicines, drumming, and other activities. The language instruction is important for communication in the canoe, where (if everyone has a working knowledge of it) pullers and the skipper speak Lushootseed, the Coast Salish language. Native languages are used during the protocols, too, when the skipper introduces the canoe to the hosting tribe and asks to be invited ashore, and the hosting tribe responds with a welcome.

The activities around Canoe Journeys have been a significant factor in the  cultural revival taking place today among Coast Salish tribes in Washington, with more people learning traditional cultural practices. The classes and gatherings bring people together and strengthen tribal communities and intertribal relationships, long an important part of Coast Salish culture.

The journeys and the programs around them have had an impact on tribal youth and others who are now learning about their cultural heritage. They are gaining an appreciation of their traditions and the self-confidence and self-awareness that comes from mastering the challenges presented by building a canoe and learning to paddle. In 2016 Katelynn Pratt of the Suquamish Tribe was quoted in an Indian Country Media Network article about what she has gained from canoe journeys, "You work on getting to that next place … [You learn] that there's always something better, that when you get into a rough place, you can get through it " (Walker).

From the beginning, the Canoe Journey program has been closely tied to the healing of tribal communities. In particular, it has offered a path out of substance abuse for some participants. The Quileute Tribe incorporated training and preparing for the Paddle to Seattle into the tribal school's substance-abuse-prevention curriculum. As Forlines told a Seattle Times reporter in 1989, organizers wanted to "counter the problems of alcohol and drugs that we have on the reservation. The answer is 'culture.' If you get people involved in re-discovering their culture, in really caring about it, they are so busy they don't have time for the other stuff" (Duncan).

The First Canoe Journey

By the summer of 1989, 17 tribes were ready to participate in the Paddle to Seattle. The first three canoes from Quileute set out from La Push on July 12, 1989, at 5 a.m. Fog, currents, and swelling seas challenged the paddlers all day, and it was more than 17 hours later that they reached their first stopover place, at Neah Bay.

The next day they set out again, and over the next eight days paddled along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the western shore of Puget Sound, stopping at reservations along the way. Other canoes joined them at each stop, and the growing flotilla reached Suquamish on July 20. A feast was hosted by the Suquamish Tribe, attended by Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013), his wife Jean Gardner (b. 1938), Secretary of State Ralph Munro (b. 1943), and tribal leaders from around the region. Dancing and other traditional ceremonies marked the occasion. Frank Brown, skipper of a canoe from the Heiltsuk Nation of British Columbia, invited Washington's tribes to make the trip north in four years for a Paddle to Bella Bella. This invitation launched what have become nearly annual Canoe Journeys.

The Paddle to Seattle continued the next morning. Canoes from the around the region converged on the city and gathered at Golden Gardens Park on Shilshole Bay. There, official Paddle to Seattle festivities included canoe races around a four-mile course and a parade of dozens of canoes. Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Discovery Park hosted activities and a Northwest Indian art show.

A Tradition Reborn

A handful of smaller-scale Canoe Journeys for youth took place in the interim between the Paddle to Bella Bella in 1993 and the Paddle to LaPush in 1997. Subsequent Canoe Journeys have been hosted by tribes and First Nations up and down the West Coast.

Participants have come from far and wide. Maori people from New Zealand have joined in Canoe Journeys several times since 2008 as part of their cultural-exchange program with the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. California tribes have come north and a number of Alaskan Native canoes have paddled south. The host tribe or First Nation supplies the visitors with the feasts and other hospitality that Coast Salish tribes are famous for providing to their guests.


Delores Tarzan Ament, "Paddle Power -- Washington State Tribes Will Navigate Traditional Canoes in Seafair Event," The Seattle Times, April 4, 1989, p. D3; Don Duncan, "Canoeists Paddle Their Way Back to Yesteryear," Ibid., July 20, 1989, p. C1; Terry Lawhead, "Solemn Journey -- Traditional Tribal Custom Rediscovered as Indians Stage 'Paddle to Seattle,'" Ibid, July 11, 1989, p. E1; Terry Lawhead, "Parade Across the Water -- Native Americans Celebrate Their Culture in the 'Paddle to Seattle,'" Ibid, July 22, 1989, p. C1; Marylin Bard, "Marylin Bard Remembers the Paddle to Seattle," Indian Country Media Network website accessed December 18, 2016 (; Barbara Lawrence, "Barbara Lawrence's Centennial Story," Suquamish News, December 2014, pp. 1, 3; Brent Merrill, "Canoe Journey Returns for Paddle to Nisqually," Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde website accessed December 22, 2016 (; Emmett Oliver, "Reminiscences of a Canoe Puller," in A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State ed. by Robin K. Wright (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), 248-249; Jennifer Ott interview with Joanne Dominick and Angela Wymer, December 14, 2016, Snoqualmie; Richard Walker, Emmett Oliver, "Founder of Paddle to Seattle, Walks On at 102," Indian Country Media Network website accessed December 18, 2016 (; Leslie Jeanne Lincoln, "Paddle to Seattle: A Native Washington Movement to 'Bring Them Canoes Back Home,'" (master’s thesis, University of Washington, 1990); "Coast Salish Canoes," Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe website accessed December 29, 2016 (



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