People have had an intimate relationship with water. Not only is it our bodies’ life source and without it nothing on Earth could grow, but also it has been utilized as a means of transportation all over the world prior to industrialization. Our waterways were once our highways. All across North America varying kinds of canoes were tailored to fit the type of water they would be used on. These canoe-carving skills were acquired through years of trial and error and passed down through family lineage. The canoe was a vessel for transport and an essential part of our everyday lives. We had sacred bonds with our canoes, which gave them a spirit all their own — a spirit that almost died and has now been resurrected.
A journey to awaken the spirit of the canoe and to bring about the healing of our people known as the “Paddle to Seattle” began with nine canoes in 1989. As in ancient times, the paddlers can take weeks to reach their destination. The celebration has been reawakening Indigenous, Native American and First Nation cultures since. Elders believe that through canoe-pulling, a tribe achieves perfect harmony and balance. Great healing occurs.
On my mother’s side, the Klamath people of southern Oregon used our canoes for everything from seasonal food gathering, transportation along rivers, through marshes and across lakes, to ceremonial burial. My father’s side comes from the Columbia River Gorge. Many canoes plied the Columbia prior to white settlement, hauling goods and people up and down the river, which served as the transportation backbone of a vibrant regional trade network.
Our canoes were also used for seasonal food gathering and for ceremonial burial. Burial islands on the Columbia River were a sacred, holy place of final destination — a place where finely crafted canoes adorned scaffoldings as a way to show high honor for an individual who had passed on. Our ancestors were buried in their finest and shown the utmost respect when making their final journey. Columbia River Gorge tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation referred to the river, our sacred place, as We’Muł (Kiksht), N’Chi Wana (Ichishkin) and Pabahuudu (Numu).
Relocation in 1855 from the mighty Columbia Gorge to reservations left works of art and tools for gathering like basketry, pottery, petroglyphs and canoes along the river where they had resided for thousands of years. The establishment of dams on the river forced relocation upon Indigenous peoples by flooding thousand-year-old villages, burial and fishing sites, virtually erasing thousands of years of historical memories, our close relationship to the land, water and our culture. The river is an environmental and social justice issue, and dam construction has infringed upon countless treaty rights. To this day, many spirits remain unsettled beneath the murky waters of historical trauma.
Decades after forced relocation to reservations, in 2009, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs acquired a 36-foot canoe, named N’chi Wana in March 2010 and currently resting at The Museum at Warm Springs. Our intent is to revitalize cultural history and practices and share these teachings with generations amid a circle of sobriety and prevention. The N’chi Wanapum Canoe Family has since journeyed to the Native Nations of the Makah, Swinomish and Squaxin Island. The Canoe Journey is now more than 100 tribal canoes annually from throughout the Northwest and beyond. This will be Warm Springs’ fourth journey and our third year in existence. N’chi Wanapum departs their ancestral waters of the Columbia Gorge July 18 to land on the western Washington shores of the Quinault Indian Nation July 31, traveling 310 miles. Landing will be followed by a week of cultural exchange and feasting amongst the hundreds of tribes in attendance.
The need for help continues to grow for our youth to partake in the life-changing experience. N’chi Wanapum’s participation has grown from 39 people in 2010 to 79 in 2012, the fastest growing project on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Community-wide participation has grown to over 225 in only three years and this year’s journey will require vehicles for 80 members.
Yet the volunteers, funds and assets to sustain such a growing group of youth and elders have not been able to keep up. Cultural gifts and donations are exchanged along the journey among host communities and nations, followed by their largest giveaway at their final destination. Tax-deductible financial gifts to the project can be made through The Museum at Warm Springs. The group is also seeking a large passenger bus, several passenger vans and a 4×4 pickup for towing the canoe. Also needed are weatherproof coats, bandanas, sweatshirts and sweatpants.
N’chi Wanapum meets weekly to discuss the annual Canoe Journey. They hope to one day establish their own nonprofit status along with a cedar strip canoe and a canoe carved from a whole cedar log. The ambitions of the family currently require a canoe shed large enough to house such works of art and an office.
The Warm Springs Canoe Family sincerely invites you and your families to attend Canoe Journey. Canoe families and Native Nations unite from throughout the Northwest to partake in this monumental event. You will have the honor in witnessing a journey of spirituality and ceremony as we reintroduce the canoe to our people of Warm Springs.