Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy
August 4, 2005 Canoe Journey.
I think I may be getting tired of travel. While Iím glad to be on my own again, I no longer want talk to people on the road. I am tired of the photos I take; trees silhouetted against dramatic clouds, fog creeping into a cove, sculptures by a bike trail or atop old poles in a harbor. I am staying in places filled with families on vacation; children circling on their bikes while their parents cook dinner over an open fire, cover the picnic table with a plastic cloth, pull out the bottles of ketchup and mustard for the hamburgers and
hotdogs, hang bathing suits and wet towels on clotheslines strung from tree to tree, and relax on folding chairs spread around the campfire. Iím not interested in talking to them about their experiences, or dealing with their reactions to a middle-aged woman full-timing in an old VW van.
I found myself in Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula when thousands of native people from the US and Canada descended on the town in traditional long canoes, part of a great event to honor the ancestors and build bonds among the native tribes of the region. I watched them arrive, paddling in a stiff wind across the Port Angeles harbor, pausing as they arrived to raise their paddles in a sign of respect according to one source, a sign of peace according to another, and landing on the town beach amid a crowd of natives and
Anglos who had assembled to watch. I should have talked to people about what this meant, but I didnít. On line in the restroom, everyone else was native, and they joked about sitting in their boats impatient to land so they could dash onto shore and get in that line. But I didnít ask them how they perceived the experience, or what it meant to be a native American (or Canadian) in the 21st century, or even where they were from and how long they had been paddling.
The next day, at a laundromat in Port Angeles, a man from one of the tribes was doing his wash. He had paddled in from Vancouver Island, he told me, was of the Ahousaht tribe. They had spent a week on the water getting to Port Angeles, and had a great time. No, he said, they donít paddle other than this event.
They had trained a bit before beginning the Canoe Journey, but they werenít regular paddlers. The TV in the laundromat was playing local news, and the man excitedly pointed himself out in one of the canoes pulled up on the beach. We all turned to look, but the image was gone by the time we caught it. I could have asked him what this event meant to him or to his tribe, but I didnít. I imagine that being native is confusing. What culture are they part of? When are they part of the mainstream, and when should they stay out
of it? How much involvement should they have with native culture in order to really feel part of it? Some of the questions are like those I ask about being Jewish. This man will always be Ahousaht just as I will always be Jewish, but does that mean anything? Jews refer to themselves as ďMOTĒ Ė members of the tribe. Is the Jewish tribe more alive than the Ahousaht because we are so much bigger?
I searched for the Ahousaht on the web, to see if I could learn more than I had in the laundromat. They are part of the Nootka group. They have just under six hundred hectares of land, and their main community is on Flores Island, off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Six hundred and twenty two band members live on the reservation, and about the same number live elsewhere. The man in the
laundromat said that three hundred of them had come to the Canoe Journey Ė out of twelve hundred, thatís a lot! They paddled for a week to get to Port Angeles. The route map for the Canoe Journey showed where they had stopped each night, staying on other reservations along the way. At each stop there was a ceremony like the one in Port Angeles, to ask for permission to come to land in another bandís territory. The Canoe Journey website was set up by the American Friends Service Committee, which apparently plays a major role in organizing this event. It gave some idea of the formidable logistics involved; water safety, crossing the border,
timing the arrivals of the canoes at each place, training with your ďcanoe family,Ē connecting with the safety boats, keeping warm, fund raising, recruiting volunteers. Itís interesting that AFSC is a big player in this event - how did the Quakers, presumably white folks, come to be involved?
The host for the event at the Port Angeles end was the Elwha Klallam tribe, whose reservation is on the Lower Elwha River. Their website is interesting too. They talk about cultural resurgence, about resuming the use of their language in their schools, about re-learning the traditions of building and paddling
canoes. Itís all about reclaiming their culture, one that they lost for over a hundred years after white people came to their land and nearly wiped them out with unfamiliar diseases. They briefly review their history, about which most information seems to come from the records of the outsiders. Thatís very different from the history of the Jews; we document ourselves, and while Jews have certainly been decimated by other cultures, we are not threatened with extinction, and we are still a strong part of mainstream culture.
But reading about all of this on the web, while sitting in a pleasant coffeehouse with free wifi is more comfortable than talking to people about it out on the Elwha reservation. This seems like their event, not a place for tourists. I donít really belong out there among the singing and dancing, because Iím not part of it. Besides, these days Iím more interested in reading about strangers than I am in talking to them.
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