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Chas Jones, Tribal Liaison at the Northwest CASC, reflects on his experience at a Tribal canoe journey and the importance of traditional knowledge.

Written by Chas Jones, Ph.D., Tribal Liaison for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians at the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center

As tribal liaison for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians at the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center (NW CASC), I stood upon the shores of the Puget Sound on a hot Saturday in late July as more than 120 tribal canoes converged on the beach. I was invited to the canoe journey as a participant in Portland State University’s Institute for Tribal Governance’s Professional Certificate in Tribal Relations. As a visitor to the reservation of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in Washington, I was one of thousands of spectators awaiting their landing, but I was also a volunteer assisting with the landing of the canoes. The canoe families traveled from as far away as Alaska, Canada, Southern California, and New York. Some of them have been “pulling” (as they refer to the act of paddling) for nearly a month en route to the beach that I was standing upon.

According to a news article in Tacoma, WA’s The News Tribune, in 1989, the annual canoe journey was initiated in an act of cultural revitalization. The voyage encourages cross cultural pollination between tribes and builds relationships up and down the coast. Puyallup tribal chairman, Chester Earl, said, “At one point, the Puyallup had no songs. By traveling to other nations, we’ve been able to pick things back up.”

The Chief of the Namgis Nation (British Columbia, Canada), Don Svanvik, stated that the Namgis Nation never lost its seagoing ways. “We’re close to losing it now. We’re fishers. We’re losing that ability because there’s hardly any fish left to catch.” The lack of salmonids has been attributed to the combined impacts of dams, over fishing, and increasing water temperatures in spawning streams. Decreases in the availability of salmon, a cultural cornerstone of northwestern Tribes, could have profound impacts on the culture and livelihood of the region’s tribes. Yet the revitalization of cultural traditions, such as the canoe journey, help tribes retain cultural connections to their ancestors. These types of cultural revitalization increase resilience to the many challenges faced by tribes including those associated with extreme weather events and detrimental impacts of long-term climate trends.

Chief Svanvik’s mention of the declining fish populations in their offshore waters and their less frequent visits to their oceanic fisheries is an example of how traditional knowledge can inform us of changing environmental conditions. Understanding these changes and how they might impact both natural and cultural resources is an important part of our work at the Northwest CASC.  The center values the role that traditional knowledge can play in the scientific process and encourages researchers to consider how it might be integrated into their science projects.

“Honoring Our Medicine” was the theme of this year’s canoe journey. “It [the journey] has meant healing for our communities,” Puyallup Tribal Council member Tim Reynon said.

“The medicine comes from the water,” said Connie McCloud, the Puyallup Tribe’s Cultural Director. “Our water comes from our sacred mountain. It comes from the land, it’s our plants, it’s our food.”

As the welcoming ceremony began, a bald eagle soared overhead. One by one, each canoe asked permission to land through verse, song, or prayer. After being welcomed by Puyallup tribal leadership, each canoe came to shore and was surrounded by up to 50 people before being picked up and carried above the level of high-tide. The vessels ranged from cedar dugout canoes, cedar strip canoes, painted canvas canoes, and fiberglass canoes. The massive canoes were frequently up to 60 feet in length and weighed up to 2000 lbs. Longshoremen, members of the U.S. Air Force and National Guard, and volunteers (including me) waded into the water to join tribal members in carrying the heavy canoes ashore. Despite the burden that we all felt carrying the canoes, I think that we all understood that it was just a momentary discomfort. It was a moment in which I found myself inspired by not only the revitalization of the cultural traditions, but also by the intense pride that was apparent in the many American Indians and Alaska Natives that stood alongside me on the shores of the Puget Sound. 

About the Author:
Chas Jones is the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indian’s Tribal Liaison at the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center (NW CASC). As one of eight Tribal Liaisons in the CASC network, Chas strives to serve tribes in his region in addressing their climate-related concerns. By addressing their tribal climate priorities, the tribes find themselves to be more resilient to climate extremes and detrimental impacts of long-term climate trends. In this role, Chas has found himself building relationships with tribes, tribal staff, and tribal citizens. These relationships have been key to successful collaborations in which he is able to understand the concerns of a particular tribe or tribal department and recognize opportunities for funding or potentially synergistic partnerships with NGOs or governmental agencies. The ability to identify these opportunities and linkages are really important in his position and would be difficult if he hadn’t spent the time talking with tribes and tribal staff to learn about their climate-related concerns.

The CASC Tribal Liaison positions are supported by the Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs. Learn more here.

Learn more about science projects funded by the Northwest CASC here.

Original quotations were borrowed from:
​Sailor, Craig. “Tribal canoes converge on Tacoma for songs, stories and renewal of culture“. The News Tribune. July 31, 2018.

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