PORT ANGELES, Wash.—Captain Mark Anderson, wearing the conical woven hat of the Pacific Northwest Indians, stood at the stern of the Cowlitz tribe’s handsome canoe floating just offshore the afternoon of July 23. He greeted a welcoming committee of the Lower Elwha band of the Klallam tribe waiting on Hollywood Beach here.
“We have been pulling for many hours with no relief pullers,” he said. “We are cold, tired, and hungry. It is many, many years since a Cowlitz canoe has visited these waters.”
He asked for permission to come ashore. The three young girls, with Lower Elwha Tribal chairwoman, Frances Charles, standing beside them, answered in the Klallam language, welcoming the visitors to come ashore.
The ceremony was repeated more than a dozen times as the tribes participating in the “Paddle to Quw’utsun,” arrived from Sequim Bay about 20 miles east of here. They will rest here for two days and then begin the arduous 20 mile paddle across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island for the final rally at Quw’utsun, an Indian village north of Victoria July 27. Many of the crewmembers, mostly young men and women, have been paddling for days from as far south as Quinault on the Pacific coast and as far north as Bella Bella in British Columbia.
This annual waterborne festival caught the world’s imagination with the 1989 Paddle to Seattle that involved only nine dugout canoes. Now between 70 and 100 tribal canoes paddled by hundreds of pullers participate.
Frances Charles told the World it is one of the most positive, unifying events in the lives of the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. “It’s a chance for all the tribes to come together,” she said. “The young people just want it to go on and on. They are sorry when it is over.”
It is billed as “drug, alcohol, and violence free” and has a serious side to go with the festivities. Her tribe hosted “Paddle to Elwha” in 2005 in the midst of a struggle over a yard that was under construction at the base of Ediz Hook where pontoons would be built to repair the floating bridge over Hood Canal. In excavating for the yard, an ancient burial site was uncovered and thousands of artifacts of a village that thrived here 2,700 years ago. “Paddle to Elwha” became a demonstration by all the tribes in support of the Lower Elwha’s demand that construction be halted. Gov. Christine Gregoire yielded to the tribes’ demand and construction of the yard stopped.
Charles told the World that agreement was reached July 22 on a compromise agreement to return title to the site to the tribe. The tribe is still struggling to win agreement for construction of a curation facility where the artifacts will be processed and displayed to the public. There is stubborn resistance among many whites even though it would clearly become a magnet for tourism that would benefit the entire community, Charles said.
The night before, the Jamestown Band of S’Klallams hosted a dinner and celebration at the Sequim High School Cafeteria. Jamestown S’Klallam Chairman Ron Allen welcomed the crews to an evening of singing, drumming, and dancing by the Puyallup, Nisqually, Suquamish, Squaxin Island, Port Gamble Klallam, Chehalis, Cowlitz, and other tribes camped in a tent city outside on the football field. A collection was taken up to build a memorial for Chief Jerri Jack, 65, who died two years ago when his canoe capsized, spilling him and his fellow crewmembers into the frigid waters. It led to new rules that every crewmember wear a life vest and every canoe be accompanied by a motorized support boat.
Lester Delacruz, a member of the Quinault Nation is the skipper of the Squaxin Island canoe, a 36 foot dugout with 10 pullers. “This is my first year,” he told the World. “I don’t look on this as an athletic event. This is upholding our culture, our traditions, honoring our ancestors. I would hope that we’re not in need of fighting for our rights to be on the water. We’ve always been here. We lost those rights for a while, but now we’ve won them back.”
By Tim Wheeler