The Power of Paddling Together

Greenpeace joins the Tribal Canoe Journey

by Kat Clark

December 20, 2016

The Tribal Canoe Journey is an incredible annual event where thousands of members of North American tribes and Canadian First Nations travel hundreds of miles by canoe from their lands to a host nation. For nearly three weeks last summer, Greenpeace was honored to participate. Here's what it was like.

Annie Leonard, who leads Greenpeace USA and Joanna Kerr, who leads Greenpeace Canada, both took part in the 2016 Tribal Canoe Journey, hosted this year by the Nisqually Tribe. I spoke with Annie and Joanna to hear first hand about this unique experience.

How did you prepare for this journey?

AL: I like to understand how the activities I take part in, or places I visit, fit into a broader historical arc so I read up about the history of the Canoe Journeys before we set off. I read about the protocols and cultural norms of the communities we would join, as I wanted to show up in a respectful way. I also got some chocolate covered espresso beans just in case there was no coffee, but no need! We were very well taken care of throughout.

JK:  I had the privilege of being part of a special potlatch ceremony last year, invited by the Willie family and joining many Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chiefs of Alert Bay in Canada. This had given me a glimpse of what evenings on the Canoe Journey might be like, but like Annie, I made sure to read up about the specific history and significance of the Journey. To prepare for our days on the water I’d tried to get as much kayaking in over the summer as possible – paddling 30 miles (50 km) a day for Canoe Journeys is no small feat!

Can you share your first impressions?

AL: I arrived in Seattle near the end of the Journey and first saw the canoes coming ashore near Puyallup. It was an amazing sight, with Mt Rainier towering over the background. I grew up in Seattle, and saw that mountain every day. I used it to locate myself, to assess directions. To see that mountain, which was so familiar to me, and those canoes, which were so new to me was especially emotional.

A crew pulls their canoe in the Salish Sea (Puget Sound) on the 2016 Canoe Journey "Paddle to Nisqually." Mt. Rainier is in the distance.

Mt. Rainier over Puget Sound on the 2016 Canoe Journey. © Steve Dipaola / Greenpeace

JK: My first impression was how generously the Squamish nation had enveloped their Greenpeace family into this epic event:  we camped, paddled, ate, danced and shared stories together. When we first took to the water I was amazed at how fast we were paddling! I couldn’t take my eyes off the paddle of the woman in front of me or I’d lose the rhythm or knock other paddles. This concentration is actually quite meditative.

AL: Yes, I thought that too. One of our skippers, Chief Ian Campbell, talked to us about the importance of pulling together, watching the puller ahead of us and responding accordingly, staying focused and not getting distracted, resting when we needed to rest, taking care of ourselves so we could be part of the group. He was talking about the paddles – but he was also talking about so many other things in life. We could swap out ‘activism’ or ‘parenting’ or ‘living in community’ for ‘pulling’ and the lesson would have been relevant.

What was the day to day on the water like?

JK: To give you a taste: we would rise at 6am, have coffee and breakfast in camp, surrounded by hundreds of  Indigenous families on this journey. We’d get down to the water, lift our canoe and as many others as we could into the water (and they are heavy) then set out to paddle to the next community. We were followed by our support boat where we’d be able to take a rest, use the facilities or get food and water.  And at the back of our canoe one of our Squamish skippers, Shamentsut, would call out instructions, tell stories, and keep us focussed and disciplined. When we’d arrive at the tribal lands of a new host nation, we’d wait in the canoe to be welcomed by the host Chief and elders. After making camp we’d eat together and then head to protocol. Here we both witnessed and took part in speeches, songs, dances and gift exchanges, often til 2 in the morning. Then it would all start again early the next day.

What was your most memorable moment?

JK: There were so many! The Canoe Journey was a profound experience, and humbling. I was so impressed by all the youth who kept to this challenging physical regime and yet would be the most animated dancers out on the floor. You could just see the pride and empowerment as every part of their Indigenous identity was supported and celebrated. Few settlers ever get to be part of something like this — it was an experience I will hold with me forever.  

AL: I was deeply moved to hear first hand the stories I had read about in history books, about forced relocations, and the abusive residential school school systems (which existed in Canada and the US). Kids were put into these institutions very young – forced to have a new name, and never speak their own language again. As a mother, I can’t imagine how hard this must have been. It’s one thing to read about experiences like this and another to talk to people whose family members lived through it. I asked Chief Bill Williams how he teaches the young people about this without making them bitter and angry. He explained in words far more eloquent than I can repeat that this kind of suffering is not unique to Native Americans but is part of humanity. He said that the Syrians, the African American slaves, the Jewish people in the holocaust, the Iraqis – all have suffered. He said it is important to see suffering as a stream of humanity that we must battle and overcome as humans, and not about their specific victimization. It must take enormous strength to be so compassionate, especially as we continue to see the horrific mistreatment of North American indigenous peoples in North Dakota, with sacred burial grounds of their ancestors and historic village grounds being bulldozed for an oil pipeline.

How will the Canoe Journey experience affect you moving forward?

AL: I especially appreciated the many reminders about showing gratitude. From small things our hosts said, to specific steps in the dances, many times each day we would pause to be grateful. One of the Chiefs told me that before he walks into a meeting, a gathering, a room – anything – he pauses and is grateful, even when in the midst of hardship or fierce battles with corporations destroying their land. I thought about what a positive impact it must have on our minds and bodies to orient towards what we are grateful for, rather than the many things that aren’t working, or that irritate or defeat us each day.

JK: The journey was a powerful reminder for me personally that settlers all have a responsibility to respect and advance Indigenous rights.

Any last reflections?

JK: Greenpeace was one of the first predominantly non-Native organizations to be invited to not just bear witness but also to fully participate in the Canoe Journey in this way.  We came to listen and learn. That means a great deal to us.

AL:  It was an incredible act of generosity and commitment for the Squamish to include us as part of their canoe family, and for the Nisqually to host, feed and teach us. I am very grateful to have been a part of this.


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