This year, for the first time since canoes were a regular form of transport for gathering, hunting and fishing, many of the Plateau Tribes embarked on a canoe journey on the Columbia River from various traditional starting points to Kettle Falls in northeastern Washington State. Kettle Falls is where—in the pre-dam, pre-contact era—the tribes would gather to fish for many salmon and the traditional Salmon Chiefs would determine and distribute the catches to the tribes. This provided and sustained Native people, along with other traditionally-obtained foods, through the winter months. Now many waterways, including the Columbia, face the ravages of dam building, mining and other pollution detrimental to humans, wildlife and our life-giving salmon. A big part of this journey was to bring our prayers, spirit and healing to the water. Of course, where Natives gather there was also a lot of laughter and stories. We started in June 2016 for an eight-day trip.
Each time I am on a coastal canoe journey, I reach a day where I think: “That’s it! I’m heading home.” Whether it’s due to frayed relationships, because we’re all tired and in close quarters or missing our comfortable beds, we all seem to have that moment: “I’ve had it. I’ll just jump and swim from here.” But we stay, because Native people have survived much worse and I know I’m strengthened both physically and spiritually by the immersion in my culture and with my people. This is why we are strong and never stripped fully of our being. Reaching a point of feeling that way is fine and then circling up and working through any differences is our blessing and way. I am so fortunate and thankful to the Colville Tribe for inviting me to go on this historical journey with them and I truly would not have walked away from them after making the commitment. Our lifeblood is the river and water – to travel the river the same way my ancestors did was healing and truly completed a circle.
My grandmother, as a very young girl, watched this same river take her mother. She was a Colville Tribal member and came from Nespelem. My grandmother never talked about this. I learned this from my uncle, her son, long after she was gone. As many elders of the boarding school era learned, she bottled up many things. It’s a testament to her loving nature and strength that she did teach me many cultural and practical ways that I use every day – I think of her every day. This knowledge did make me a little nervous and sometimes the canoes were pretty tippy. But, my heart kept telling me I was safe. We did in fact have a day where our canoe capsized. But, I did not think the river meant to take me too, but was instead offering healing and assurance that the river gives us life and lifts us up. I have participated in cold water training and knew what to do, and we all came through together. This healing experience was so personal and inexplicably life-affirming.
Our Columbia River journey was begun by our ancestors and this reawakening was likely understood in their hearts too; long before we knew we were going, they knew. The Quinault Tribe donated six cedar logs to the Plateau Tribes and The Upper Columbia United Tribes took on engaging the tribes and other partners to help in canoe building and getting experienced skippers to help guide the canoes safely to our destination. It was truly a collaboration with non-Natives who had knowledge and genuine respect for the people and process. However, the mindset of some non-Native people in eastern Washington and northern Idaho cannot be glossed over. Having participated in coastal tribal journeys for years, there is a stark contrast in the welcome, respect and participation on the different sides of the state. During our journey on the Columbia, we encountered non-Native people refusing to respect our space on land where they had no permits to be; and canoes being buzzed by boaters, creating very unsafe conditions on the water.
My coastal canoe family is the Squaxin Island Tribe. Prior to starting on our journey in July 2016, I thanked them wholeheartedly for always welcoming me, for without their generosity I would not have been able to bring my experience back home. Getting on the salt water again this year was a big “Ahhhhh.” Just as some of my coastal family are also river people, I know I also have coastal salt water in my veins. Pulling under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge or onto Alki Beach or any of our other stops is rejuvenating beyond explanation, even though our bodies have often done more than we thought we could. Of course, our joking and sharing meals is pretty universal among tribes across the country. The thrill of getting through the wakes of freighters, Navy ships, ferries, or across a choppy Columbia River is undertaken with respect for the water and trust in the other pullers and your skipper.
The Nisqually Tribe were amazing hosts of the coastal canoe journey this year and the host tribes along the way offered wonderful food, songs, dances and protocol spaces. Along the Columbia however, our campsites were mostly unestablished and remote, which meant no showers and using a shovel for bathroom needs. Both are really exceptionally wonderful ways to live, even if it means dealing with a sore back or un-shampooed hair.
We are blessed to have our traditions, leadership and the strength to stand by one another and our culture. As I wrote earlier, this benefits every one of all races and I hope to participate in and teach about the canoe journey whenever I have the opportunity.
By Charlene Abrahamson (Spokane/Colville/Coeur d’Alene)
Charlene Abrahamson is Director of the Chehalis Tribal Behavioral Health Department, and is the mother of IWRI Research Coordinator, Tess Abrahamson-Richards.