Sunday afternoon’s arrival of two Native American canoes at the Edmonds Waterfront Center set the stage for what will be a traditional two-week paddle journey through northern Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands for the 60-member-strong Blue Heron Canoe Family. The event was led by Blue Heron Canoe Family patriarch Mike Evans, and included prayer, ceremony, dance and song, all a prelude to the Monday morning departure on the Healing Water Paddle, a journey that will take them along a traditional native canoe route through the Salish Sea.
As the primary means of travel between coastal communities throughout the Puget Sound, the living canoes have held a vital place for the Coast Salish people as vehicles of welcome and conflict, fishing and trade, and a deep-rooted cultural tradition passed down throughout generations. This week’s journey honors traditions and celebrates ancestral knowledge and canoe culture, providing a pathway for youth to learn, internalize, and reclaim this cultural identity.
“The roots of the journey go back to the Washington State Centennial in 1989, when local tribes got together to mark the occasion with a canoe journey from the coast to Suquamish to Alki,” explained Diana White, an Edmonds resident and former Edmonds School Board member, Blue Heron Family member, and member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Indians. “It grew every year since then, at one point comprising more than 125 canoes.”
But when COVID hit, the event was shut down for two years running. This year it’s making a comeback, as some of the tribes and canoe families gear up for new, smaller journeys that may cover fewer miles but remain strong in spirit, tradition, healing, and culture.
While some canoes are organized by specific tribes, others are the work of more loosely organized canoe families. The Blue Heron Canoe Family is one such group that grew out of the then-Edmonds Community College Anthropology department, and has been participating in canoe journeys since its formation in 2010.
“Canoe families can comprise a mixture of tribes, races, ages and genders,” explained Blue Heron Family member White. “My tribe is from the Midwest. But you do need to be invited to join.”
Two canoes will take part in the journey – The Blue Heron and the Willapa Spirit. While each will have only about 12 paddlers, other family members will provide land support by bringing food, setting up camp, and meeting the paddlers each night along the journey, where they will bond through camping together, tell stories, singing, dancing and celebrating the native Coast Salish culture.
Prior to Monday’s 9 a.m. departure from the Edmonds waterfront, the group has arranged with the Edmonds Parks Department to camp together at City Park. The journey will take them to Camano Island, the Swinomish tribal lands near LaConner, Lopez Island and San Juan Island, and end at Lummi Island.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel