Tribal Journeys amidst COVID-19; staying afloat and loving the water

Owen L. Oliver
12 min readAug 30, 2020
Columbia River. Photo taken by author.

I am fortunate enough to say that I’ve grown up with canoes my whole life. Whether it is learning traditions revolving around the canoe, pulling in a team of 11, repairing canoes for the next season, and more recently teaching about the importance of canoes in modern day settings, I can’t think of a year where I haven’t been involved. Especially during the summer season. Summer isn’t just a long stretch of hot days and lessened responsibilities, summer in the Pacific Northwest is tribal journey season.

Tribal Journey, or Canoe Journey, is a tradition in the Pacific Northwest since time immemorial. It’s a monumental event that showcases potlatch culture at its greatest. A host tribe invites other tribes from all over the Salish Sea up to Southeast Alaskan waters to take part in traveling to that initial tribe’s sovereign, ancestral, and contemporary lands. Once the canoes arrive, mind you that some of these canoes have been traveling over hundreds of miles, the invited communities take part in their responsibility of announcing who they are, what their intentions are, and what they have for the host tribe in return for the host’s hospitality for the coming week. Potlatches are where tribes deal their business and disputes in the first days, with food and dancing for hours after. Leading to long days that turn into weeks of relationship building and maintaining. Depending on just how wealthy the individual tribe is, it’s not rare for gifts to land in your lap, with an understanding that it’s your duty to redistribute your wealth in the next years as a token of respect for the host’s potlatch.

Last year, in 2019, the Paddle to Lhaq’temish (Lummi) marked the 30th year of the resurrection of canoes in the Pacific Northwest which transformed the Coast Salish waters into a place of learning, sharing, and knowledge-holding once again. It was the very first ‘Paddle to Seattle’ in 1989 that reminded the youth to look up to the elders and embrace the intergenerational learning that comes from the teachings of the canoe. Something I learned early on was that, you don’t simply ride in a canoe, you’re a part of it — you’re in control of the energy that you put into the ceremony and it’s your responsibility to understand how to receive its potential.

Canoe Journey brothers. Left to Right; Owen, Brian, and Sampson Oliver. Photo taken by Geoff Simmonds

Last year also marked the passing of my father during Tribal Journey. It is our customary duty to remove ourselves from the canoe and water after a death happens. I hadn’t planned on paddling as much as I wanted because I was taking care of him, but my younger brother and sister had spent time preparing and were ready for their own paddle. Each summer, they too, are excited for what the canoe will gift them, as long as they place the right intentions back into the canoe. Unfortunately, after my brother and sister’s first paddle of the year, they needed to return home. As I talked to them and consoled them, I knew they were additionally saddened at the thought that they weren’t pulling alongside our canoe family up to Lhaq’temish. However, they both understood that being in the canoe wasn’t viable and that this reality wasn’t some form of consequence. It is just on the path of being a Coast Salish person.

Death is inevitable, but the teachings are long-lasting.

My brother and sister went back to join the canoe family as ground support — they needed to hear the drums and singing of 24-hour protocol to put them to sleep in their small two-person tent. Canoe Journey is a place where you don’t think about outside influences, problems, or world politics. Trust me there is a lot of tribal politics at play. Canoe Journey lets the younger generation feel aligned with what it means to take after our ancestors: the ancestors that enjoyed non-Western influences, the ancestors that fought for what rights we have now, and the ancestors that are in the making.

Canoe Journey sisters. Left to Right; Isadora, Owen, Lisa Iscan (Oliver).

It was my first time not paddling in a canoe for the summer in a while as well. I had to learn how to deal with death, how to visualize the power of the water for my strength, and the hardest lesson, how to welcome canoes with the hosts, rather than being in the canoe. That year was the same year that I fell in love with being in the mountains, whether that was through climbing, running, or hiking. I was enthralled by the ability of going from sea level to heights in the five digits. Summiting, not for the prize of claiming, but for being along the journey of living in place on ancestral mountains like Pahto (Mt. Adams), Kulshan (Mt. Baker), Shuskan, Loowit (Mt. Saint Helens), and others. Before attending Lhaq’temish Canoe Journey, I was just coming off of Tahoma (Rainier) in the territory of the Puyallup, Nisqually, Muckleshoot, Yakama, Cowlitz, Tahoma serves as a beacon for all Coast Salish tribes.

Scaling Skuskan via the Fisher Chimneys and looking at Klushan in the background. Photo taken by author

My climbing partner and I, who forged our friendship through being Indigenous climbers, were ready to drive up to Lhaq’temish territory and honor their mountains alongside their modern-day potlatch. It’s interesting to note that we were climbing Puyallup’s ancestral mountain Tahoma and then driving north to Lhaq’temish, just as Puyallup hosted Canoe Journey in 2018 and Lhaq’temish in 2019. We didn’t realize this until now. I guess canoes have always taught us how to move, even if we aren’t in the water.

We arrived at Lhaq’temish eager to welcome the canoes to the landing and excited to visit with friends and family across Turtle Island. Canoe Journey not only brings Coast Salish people together, but Indigenous people of all the shared waters across the world. Indigenous pullers from New Zealand, Pacific Islands, and South America make their yearly tributes to increase the visibility of Indigenous people worldwide.

Paddle to Snuneymuxw (Nanaimo) 2020 was going to be a huge hit, not just because of the record-setting visitors the host were anticipating, but also because it was going to reinforce our First Nation relations. We need to be reminded to recognize our relations up North because they face the same struggles and fights we do and we need to stand solidarity as Western borders have tried to divide us from our Northern relations. Canoe Journey allows us to learn from each other on an intergenerational track, unlike Western linear ideals. Our relationships are what foster the continuation of Canoe Journey seen when the late Chief Frank Brown of Bella Bella challenged everyone at the initial Paddle to Seattle in 1989 to come join him for his potlatch in 1993. While the Paddle to Snuneymuxw was canceled due to COVID-19, it’s potential will not be forgotten. It also lets us know that the fight of COVID-19 isn’t static, it’s not just here and there, it’s in all communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Staying at protocol all week long and being jam packed in the big house (where as many as ten thousand people come and go at their leisure) seems almost impossible in this day and age. It’s hard to imagine the last time you wer­­­­­e at an event, mask-less, and closer to people than the World Health Organization’s six-foot guideline. Across social media we are reminded of the memories of Canoe Journey as they pop up on our Facebooks and get shared around Instagram. One anonymous puller posted a photo of his families’ canoe along the bright blue summer water captioned, “Miss journeys, I miss being sunburnt, I miss being covered in salt water, and I miss hearing “just around the corner” when I know damn well we got 12 more miles to pull” During this downtime, we are reminded of how we’ve learned and grew up on Canoe Journey. This puller in particular would rather be sunburnt and covered in salt than be inside thinking about the canoe. Previous summers may not have had a host for Canoe Journey, but that didn’t mean we weren’t pulling with our elders along our side.

That’s why COVID has been so damaging, it’s different than other years because this year we are forced to not physically engage with the canoe in order to do the important work of containing the virus.

This is especially significant for our communities as COVID-19 has affected Indigenous communities at disproportionate rates across Turtle Island. According to a recent study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with co-authors from the United Indian Health Institute, concluded that “rates of COVID-19 for American Indians and Alaska Natives are 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic Whites in 23 different states”. This inherently points to the problem that tribes are not receiving the resources they deserve, nor are they getting the visibility of the rampant pandemic that has threatened their elders and respected knowledge-keepers. Here in Washington and up the Columbia River from my ancestral homelands, the Yakama Nation is facing the worst effects of COVID-19. Chairman Delano Saluskin explains in a video shared through Facebook that “ 6% of Tribal Members have COVID-19 and there have been 28 deaths as of July 13th 2020” . Saluskin explains that we need to be vigilant on and off the reservation and understand our duties to protect the elders and younger folks that may have pre-existing health conditions. He goes further by saying, “we must hold physical traditions on hold right now, but we must not forget the teachings that go along with the teachings of the traditions.” Saluskin’s words reminded me of a certain rule that I had learned while being on Canoe Journey. (These rules were developed by the Quileute Canoe Family for a Northwest Experimental Education Conference in 1990).

Rule 5 of the canoe states that:

“We all pull and support each other”

“Nothing occurs in isolation. When we aren’t in the family of a canoe, we are not ready for whatever comes. The family can argue, mock, ignore each other at its worst, but that family will never let itself sink. A canoe that lets itself sink is certainly wiser never to leave the beach. When we know that we are not alone in our actions, we also know we are lifted up by everyone else.”

One of the rules in action. Photo taken by author.

This rule allows us to understand Saluskin’s cry for help at greater depth than assuming these rules should only be utilized on a canoe. Specifically, this rule, with COVID-19 in mind, reminds us that our job is to support each other in non-conventional ways. During COVID-19, we mask up, we may familiarize the older generation with new technology like Zoom and social media to stay connected with their family, and even listen more closely to stories we’ve heard for the hundredth time because we are learning to embrace each other in the home and are looking forward to when, outside of COVID-19, we can in person with each other and the canoe again.

In light of remaining connected while physically apart, I wanted to reach out to some amazing friends that participate in Canoe Journey each year to hear their thoughts on how they are continuing to love the water and embrace the rules of the canoe in their everyday COVID-19 pandemic lifestyle.

Stephaine Masterman and her dog Zeus. Photo taken by author

I first caught up with Stephanie Masterman, a Tlingit student at the University of Washington studying American Indian Studies and minoring in Arctic studies. I first got to know Stephanie the quarter before COVID happened. Stephanie and I were taking the same research family class at the Burke Museum. There, we daydreamed about Canoe Journey and shared stories of the water while we browsed our ancestors’ treasures in the collections. Yet, as COVID unfolded, Stephanie has been able to update everyone through social media that her preparation for Canoe Journey hasn’t stopped. I initially wanted to reach out because I was interested in hearing about her progress on carving her canoe paddle. In the Burke Research Family, Stephanie had focused on examining and modeling older Tlingit paintbrushes, now she’s focused on carving a paddle by hand without the modern ‘Western’ tools. Stephanie mentioned that, “it’s really nice to be doing something good like carving right now because we can’t be on the water but still being able to do something that’s a part of the canoe,” without me even asking her about canoes and COVID. Later, she let me know that she didn’t even anticipate that COVID would happen to the extent it has, so she didn’t plan to start making the paddle in place of Canoe Journey, but it just sort of happened that way. Carving her paddle has been medicine for her and a chance for her to learn from an older mentor, who she claims isn’t an elder yet, but I know for a fact that he has all the qualifications. Together they’ve been spending two hours each Saturday to review the traditional tools, wood, and techniques to apply. Stephanie explains the responsibilities she’s carved into her paddle, and her role to teach the younger generation to carve once she feels ready. We’ve all felt like the younger generation, the youth, and the kids at Canoe Journey. Canoe Journey is a place where you laugh for medicine, you let your imagination run wild, you stay sober, and you are always a student. Stephanie reminds me that she’s been missing the feeling of being like a kid during COVID, something that Canoe Journey has always brought out for her. So, in order to facilitate some of the kid-like feelings, recently Stephanie got back into roller skating. It’s been a way for her to challenge herself, get outside, and safely socialize with her old high school friends that used to roller skate too. Together they test their limits on speed and tricks and together they remind themselves to be kids sometimes. Stephanie emphasizes that it’s her best method of self-care, aside from being in the canoe.

Rule 2 of the Canoe States:

“There is to be no abuse of self or others”

“Respect and trust cannot exist in anger. It has to be thrown overboard, so the sea can cleanse it. It has to be washed off the hands and cast into the air, so the stars can take care of it. We always look back at the shallows we pulled through, amazed at how powerful we thought those dangers were.”

Stephanie reminds me that Canoe Journey is ultimately about respect. The event itself builds respect and humility; however, it can easily expose those who haven’t learned properly with the kid mindset. Respect is ingrained with everything we do from social distancing to carving paddles in the park.

Writing this piece was self-care for me. I often find myself writing notes and observations when I feel anxious and stressed. Canoe Journey is a place that allowed me to be like a kid as Stephanie noted. Canoes have been more than just transportation for the 7th generation, but canoes hold our knowledge systems, gifts, stories, and even rules. Before finishing up this piece I reached out to my friend and peer cohort of Champions for Change, Shavaughna Underwood (Quinault). Shavaughna surprised me by letting me know her success of having a socially distant canoe pull out in Taholah, Washington. Shavaughna serves as the secretary of the Canoe Society for Quinault Indian Nation and loves water travel as much as Stephanie and I. Over Facetime I could hear Shavaughna’s excitement even through her humble demeanor, “Owen, we got the canoe out in the kwɪnayɫ (Quinault River)! Even though we had to sanitize everything, wash the paddles, take everyone’s temperatures, and keep masks on! We did it!” I laughed with her saying that “usually the hardest part is holding the ceremony and asking permission to leave shore”. Shavaughna’s dedication to her community and the relationships she holds in and outside the canoe have shaped her into one of the most caring people I know, and she credits the canoe for her growth, the physicality, and spirituality of the lessons.

Quinault canoe going out with masks. Photo by Corey Smith, courtesy of Shavaughna Underwood

Though, Stephanie, Shavaughna, and I weren’t able to pull in our respected canoe families and meet up at protocol we were all able to connect virtually in one way or another. Sharing stories and experiences about the canoe just like we would in person. The canoe brings people together and I think that’s what we all have been missing during this COVID quarantine, all our relations. However, if we stay mindful of the rules of the canoe we don’t have to forget about our past, we can live in the present, and we can hope for the best of all our communities in the future.

Rule 8 of the Canoe States:

The Journey is what we enjoy

“Although the start is exciting and the conclusion gratefully achieved, it is the long, steady process we remember. Being part of the journey requires great preparation; being done with a journey requires great awareness; being on the journey, we are much more than ourselves. We are part of the movement of life. We have a destination, and for once our will is pure, our goal is to go on.”