Transcending International Colonial Boundaries Across Island Nations
Our journey began on a familiar hot summer day in July, just as it did the year before.
All year our hearts yearn for these moments, our relatives, the water, our canoe and our paddles. The anticipation buzzes through our camp. While we gather like this throughout the year, there is something special and vibrant that runs through these next few weeks.
Each year at this time we renew and honour our relationships to each other, and to the water that sustains us, that cares for us and gives us life. For these weeks our relationships – continued and new – our culture, and the water are all there is. The chaos of daily life subsides, and we can just be.
Renewing our intimate connection to who we are as quuʔas
Connecting with our ancestors
Honouring our spirit.
We begin with story and story moves in waves over each of us. It reverberates, guides, and strengthens. Each summer we build, honour, and renew our relationships, and responsibilities to each other, to the water, and to our canoe. The water is our medicine.
Seascapes cast light on multiple angles of vision, creating space for diverse perspectives and a spectrum of voices and experiences to articulate, enact and embody the many fluid meanings of sealife. There is no one singular, monolithic, coherent framework of seascape analysis. As such, we can anchor this analysis in the canoe or wayfinding ship, a voyaging vessel that carries a crew through multiple worlds, encounters and relationships.
Informed by Indigenous and decolonizing methodologies and interpretive research methods that seek to document and give presence to subtle meaning-making practices through political ethnography and visual storytelling, as well as community engagement with human and more-than-human seaworlds, the seascape methodology discussed here is experimental and experiential.
Raw data gathered for this seascape “project” – which our team has decided to call a relationship not a project – includes autoethnographic field notes, mixed media storytelling (i.e. photographs and video footage from research team collaborators and participating Indigenous youth), document analysis and immersive involvement in paddling through the Salish Sea as part of the 2018 Tribal Journey from Stz’uminus territory on Vancouver Island along the west coast of Canada, to Puyallup on the west coast of the United States, near Seattle, Washington.
This experiential approach to research is affective and it is visual. By paddling with Indigenous youth as well as documenting the process and co-producing video vignettes, we invite others to see and feel seascapes differently in fluid mediums beyond text. Furthermore, our method of engagement approaches human and more-than-human life with an ethic of care, respect and reciprocity. Participants are not simply passive objects who we extract knowledge from. Our aim is not to approach partnering communities to gather raw data then run back to the academy and claim it for ourselves. Instead, we connected with communities based on existing relationships, an approach held up by Indigenous scholars around the world.
The resurgence of Tribal Journeys began alongside Expo 1986 under the leadership of Frank Brown of the Heiltsuk Nation.
It is a voyage that brings together paddlers from all walks of life across generations. Canoe families represent unique nations and voyage nation-to-nation in an act of cultural continuity that transcends imposed colonial boundaries.
For instance, the 2018 Paddle to Puyallup ləhigʷalikʷ čəł ʔə tiił st’ulǰəxʷčəł (Honoring Our Medicine) brought together 108 canoe families, while the 2017 Standing Together paddle to Campbell River brought together over 100 canoe families.
Before each canoe family lands at their final destination, they honor traditional protocol by requesting permission from each host nation to come ashore. Over the journey, nations came together in celebration of cultures, we feasted together and shared our songs and dances.
We continue to renew our relationships in this way – practicing reciprocal engagement, deepening, creating, and affirming relationships that have developed over years and generations, and ones just born. Our arrival at each nation along the way to our final destination in Puyallup required not only an intimate knowledge of the water and the physical and mental preparation for paddling, but significant spiritual preparation as well.
This preparation is akin to that of our ancestors – physically preparing our bodies for the journey, alongside the spiritual and ceremonial preparation of our protocol songs and dances – tying us in an unbroken thread between past, present, and future.
The Moonbeam Canoe
Kw’umut Lelum is an Indigenous led Child and Family Services Organization that works with nine Coast Salish communities along the coast of Vancouver Island from Malahat First Nation to Qualicum First Nation. As an organization for First Nations youth and families, Kw’umut Lelum (KL) has remained dedicated to leading children down a path of culture, community, and family. In this, KL has also continued to embody the continuity of coastal Indigenous teachings and stories and provides opportunities for connection and reconnection between youth and culture – Tribal Journeys remains one such path of connection.
Over eight months in 2017 and 2018, the Kw’umut Lelum youth worked with master carver Luke Marston to turn a 696-year-old cedar log into a beautiful canoe. It was the largest canoe carved by Luke. Several Kw’umut Lelum youth traveled with Luke to the Royal BC Museum to learn about traditional canoes from the 1800s, deepening their knowledge of our traditions as coastal Indigenous peoples.
The young paddlers met weekly with Luke and his brother John Marston while practicing the Hu’lqu’minum language and learning to carve their own paddle for the upcoming journey. In September 2017, Kw’umut Lelum youth circled the cedar, singing and drumming in an honor ceremony from Luke’s workshop looking out to the Salish Sea. Luke mentored the youth in Indigenous carving practices over the coming months. In July 2018, the naming ceremony and celebration took place in Stz’uminus territory at Kuleet Bay–which both Rachel and Sarah participated in–marking the start of our journey that summer.
Shining in the Dark
During the ceremony, which involved Coast Salish protocols including singing, dancing and provision of quarters, Luke explained how the name came to him while steaming the canoe as the moon’s reflection danced on the water. In his remarks, he referred to the importance of keeping “your senses open” as part of the naming ceremony. He continued his reflections with reference to the moonbeam as the description of a situation where light casts shows and conveys a feeling of shining in the dark, an apt metaphor for the resilience of Indigenous youth in care, paddling towards decolonial futures. Before feasting together, the sounds of the drum pulled the youth into a circle. Adorned in their regalia, shawls featuring a killer whale – the logo for Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services – they sang and danced together as a canoe family.
To be clear: the canoe is not simply a boat. In fact, if one were to refer to the canoe as a boat, they might be thrown into the ocean! As stated during a naming ceremony on July 11th 2018, the 40 foot canoe – Moonbeam – paddled by Kw’umut Lelum youth is not merely an object transporting them from point A to point B. As political philosopher James Tully has discussed with respect to Bill Reid’s sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, the canoe is a vessel that brings diverse beings together, transforming themselves as they take on different roles and responsibilities. The canoe is a place of healing, resurgence and renewal. It is also a vessel for the transmission of teachings and cultural knowledge.
The first crew to paddle Moonbeam during the Power Paddle to Puyallup in the
summer of 2018 included Kw’umut Lelum youth and myself (Rachel). Throughout the journey, I (Rachel) was constantly reminded of the strength of our youth. I spent most of my days on the canoe with the youth, pulling along-side them, and listening to the ways they lifted each other up. Dipping our paddles into the ocean in a fluid motion as one, we sang to each other and to the water. The water heals us, stitching us back together in places we didn’t know needed attention. The water is our medicine.
Hearkening back to Luke’s reflections during the naming ceremony of the canoe, a moonbeam conveys a feeling of shining in the dark, an apt metaphor for the resilience and strength of our youth, paddling toward decolonial futures of freedom. Our youth represent the drive for a more just future that embodies our relationships in all of their forms and honors our intimate connection to the water – flowing from the fluidity of our relationality to the responsibilities we carry, we live as coastal Indigenous peoples guided by our connection to the waters that care for us, nourish us, cleanse us, and heal us.
As Cree scholar Michelle Daigle has articulated about our kinship responsibilities: “as these paddles reflect, these responsibilities are learned, transmitted and embodied through everyday practices that rebuild and reclaim kinship relations with nipi [water], and through nipi. Simultaneously, these everyday practices re-honor the political and legal authority of water caretakers such as Indigenous women, Elders and youth.”
Moving Beyond Imposed Colonial Borders
Each year, nations along the west coast of what is now called North America respond to the call from the host nation to come to celebrate, to feast, and to share our culture. Each year nations cross the invisible international boundary that settler-colonial governments erected between relatives. Borders have become imaginary lines that demarcate territories, at the same time that they are violent spaces that affirm imperialism, dispossession, and discriminatory practices of belonging within nation-states.
As Harsha Walia has described: “border imperialism illuminates how colonial anxieties about identity and inclusion within Western borders are linked to the racist justifications for imperialist missions beyond Western borders that generates cycles of mass displacement.”
Settler-colonialism has been driven by territorial access through the destruction of relationships. The continued renewal of our relationships as Indigenous peoples is a constant act of resistance.
Tribal Journeys remains a gathering that honors our relationships with our relatives on both sides of the imposed colonial border. We honor these relations in defiance of the settler-colonial governmentality that has sought to drive us apart from one another, that has sought to remove our peoples from our territories. Over these weeks, as we do throughout the year, we deeply honor continued Indigenous presence and cultural continuity.