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Photo Essay

Resurgence of the Canoe Nations

Coastal First Nations gathered earlier this month in carved vessels to revisit their traditions. Elaine Briere was there with her camera.

By Elaine Brière 23 Aug 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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I am waiting with the tribal elders at Kuleet Bay, near Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, for the big canoes to arrive. Tribal Journey 2004 is an exciting event for the hundreds present, a reenactment of an important part of their history. Since Emmett Oliver, an 89 year old Quinault tribal member, organized the "Paddle to Seattle" for Washington's state centennial in l989, big canoes have been plying coastal waters in increasing numbers.  The journey seeks to honour the centuries old tradition of transport and trade by Coastal Salish tribes of the Northwest, who traveled great distances to meet and gather for barter, feasting, dancing and witnessing.

Many of the canoes have elegantly carved prows, which symbolizes the head of the swiftly running deer. Fasting and purification ceremonies take place at the launching of a canoe and another set of ceremonies prepare the paddlers for the journey. The making of the canoes themselves is a long and labourious process. From beginning to end, the revival of this ancient method of travel fosters a sense of responsibility, pride and interdependence.

They come from places with names like Snoqualmie, Songees, Muckelshoot, Squaxim, Suquamish, Clayquot, Kyouquot, Hesquiaht, Ohiaht, Nit Nat, and Tsawout.  Some of the big canoes have crossed the dangerous waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to get here.  They circle the bay before lining up on the shore for the greeting ceremonies. As drumming and chants fill the air, older women sing the greeting song with their hands uplifted, palms forward, in the graceful welcoming gesture of the coastal tribes.  I feel tears welling up in my eyes. The beauty of the ceremony strikes a chord of strong emotion in my white heart.  I gather my wits and continue photographing. 

Elaine Briere is a Vancouver documentary photographer and filmmaker. Her book Testimony: Photographs by Elaine Brière is available in Vancouver bookstores. Her recent film, Betrayed: The Story of Canadian Merchant Seamen will be released in the fall of 2004.

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