‘A transformative experience’: Edmonds woman recalls Native American canoe journey through Salish Sea

Diana White preparing for the canoe journey. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Paddling a traditional Coast Salish open canoe through 144 miles of the Salish Sea is not an adventure everyone would savor.

“We had several 4 a.m. wakeup calls, and on some days we paddled for eight or nine hours,” explained Edmonds’ Diana White as she recalled her experiences this past August taking part in the Healing Waters Canoe Journey. “I paddled every day, and my best one-word description for the experience is ‘transformative.’ It changed me, opened my eyes and mind to new things. I came back different than when I left.”

The 2021 Healing Waters Canoe Journey was an outgrowth of a tradition begun in 1989 as part of the Washington State Centennial Celebration. Organized by the late Emmett Oliver, the 1989 event ensured a place for Washington State’s First Peoples in the festivities.  Oliver was a citizen of the Quinault Nation, a retired U.S. Coast Guard Officer, educator and advocate who served as a member of the committee that planned the State of Washington’s centennial celebration (read more about Oliver here). This return of Indigenous canoes to an Indigenous place—Seattle, a city named for the 1800s leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples—gave birth to the annual Canoe Journey and a cultural renaissance involving multiple generations from a growing number of Indigenous nations.

Before being suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual paddle journey drew more than 100 canoes. (Photo courtesy Blue Heron Canoe Family)

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.

“The original Paddle to Seattle consisted of only about 10 canoes,” explained White. “But in later years it grew to more than 100 ocean-going canoes. It was a real mix; some were connected with specific tribes, some with several tribes, and some had non-native participants. The journeys quickly became a place for native people to reconnect, rediscover, and share their culture among themselves and with others.”

While the larger annual tradition was suspended in 2020 and 2021 (and will likely be suspended in 2022) due to COVID, some smaller-scale journeys were organized to help keep the tradition alive.

The Blue Heron (foreground) and the Willipa Spirit launch into Puget Sound from the Edmonds Waterfront Center as they begin the 2021 Healing Waters Canoe Journey. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Waterfront Center)

One of these was the Healing Waters Journey, a two-week paddle tracing 144 miles of traditional Salish Sea canoe routes. Organized by the Blue Heron Canoe Family, a partnership with the then-Edmonds Community College Anthropology Department, the journey honors traditions and celebrates ancestral knowledge and canoe culture, providing a pathway for youth to learn, internalize, and reclaim this cultural identity.  The Blue Heron Family has been participating in canoe journeys since its formation more than a decade ago.

“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.”

The Willipa Spirit (foreground) and the Blue Heron on the beach in the San Juan Islands.

An enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Indians and also of Cherokee descent, White notes that her grandparents met at an Indian boarding school in Oklahoma. In addition to her strong Native American heritage, the other side of White’s family tree includes some of the original Dutch pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower.

The Healing Waters Journey began on Aug. 2, 2021, in Edmonds, where Blue Heron family members including family patriarch Mike Evans were joined by the community for a ceremony of dancing, songs, stories and more as they launched their canoes and set off for what would be a shared experience of culture, spiritual renewal, bonding and more. (See My Edmonds News full coverage of the departure ceremony here.)  Two canoes, the Blue Heron and the Willipa Spirit, took part.

This map traces the two-week Healing Waters Journey along a traditional Salish Sea canoe route.

The two-week journey took the Blue Heron Family along a traditional route, stopping at Native reservation lands, state parks and beaches on Camano Island, Fidalgo Island and the San Juans. This included paddling through some 3-foot to 4-foot seas across Rosario Strait, as well as the more protected waters of Skagit Bay and the San Juan Islands (see map).

A big part of the experience was becoming immersed in what White describes as “canoe culture,” a key part of which is “leaving the ‘it’ behind.”

The Blue Heron silhouetted against the sunset off Lopez Island. (Photo courtesy Blue Heron Canoe Family)

“By that, we mean leaving your land-based problems, grievances, grudges and other emotional and spiritual baggage behind,” White explained. “When you step in the canoe you are entering another world where you, your fellow paddlers, the canoe, the water, the sky – everything – become almost a separate entity.

“When you leave on the journey, no one really knows who each other is,” she continued. “On land we may be unemployed students or highly paid and respected professionals, but your onshore identity is part of the ‘it’ you leave behind.”

Other parts of canoe culture include keeping to the side with part of your body in contact with the canoe as you paddle, staying in sync with the lead paddler and knowing that you as a crew are stronger with all paddles in the water, singing to the rhythm of the strokes, enjoying the jokes and stories, and looking around to take in the world that surrounds and envelops you. “And don’t call them ‘boats’ unless you want to get thrown in the water,” added White.

Not all members of the 60-member strong Blue Heron Family were paddlers, but provided land support to the journey by setting up camp, cooking and more. (Photo courtesy Blue Heron Canoe Family)

Canoe culture also has specific rules and procedures for visiting and interacting with the people encountered along the way. This includes a ritualized landing ceremony. As you approach a settlement, the canoe captain stands up, identifies who they are, which tribe, and asks for permission to land. Rather than landing head on, the canoe is always backed into the shore as a sign of respect and non-aggression.

“My reactions were different out there,” explained White. “One day we had a 4 a.m. wakeup call. It had been raining all night, and we had to take down our tent, break camp and be on the water at 6 a.m. In normal life I’d be so grumpy about this! But on the journey, everyone is doing the same thing and going through the same thing – it didn’t even bother me. You focus on the task at hand. I knew I was meant to be there, it was part of the spirit, the rhythm of the trip. It’s so much bigger than just you. No one person is more important than any other.”

She also stressed the overriding ethic to focus on the canoe, keep it safe, and get it where it needs to be, adding that, “You take care of the canoe first, then camp, then yourself.”

Sunset on the beach. (Photo courtesy Blue Heron Canoe Family)

This means that someone always keeps watch over the canoe.

On the last night of the trip, that job fell to White and a fellow family member who camped on the beach to be with the canoes.

“We were sleeping in the open on Jackson Beach near Friday Harbor,” she relates. “It was the night of the meteor shower and we just stared at the sky. The water off the beach was alive with luminescent plankton that we could actually wade through. When the sun came up the next morning, I was so filled with gratitude — that I could witness all the beauty about the Earth, the work of the creator, things that are bigger than me. It was a truly transcendent moment that I’ve been able to take with me and is now part of my life back on land.”

Diana White has assembled her photos and remembrances of the Healing Waters Journey into a slide show that she is making available to community and school groups.  To arrange a presentation, contact her at Diana.white1@comcast.net.

— By Larry Vogel

  1. What a great adventure and thanks so much for sharing it with us all. I’ve done most portions of that route in an 18 foot outboard and can assure everyone that, done in man powered canoes, it is something to be pretty proud of in the modern age. Rosario is a fairly major slice of open water for any small boat to take on based on my limited experience doing it. We should all take a hint from Diana and literally worship and protect what we have here, living on the Salish Sea.

  2. Great storytelling Diana and thank you Larry for capturing it empathetically. What a wonderful experience, Diana, and I hope this was not your only journey.

  3. Diane– What an experience, honor, and what a story of commitment and endurance– both physical and spiritual! Gail and I were on a (very comfortable) river cruise up the Columbia and Snake Rivers in Oregon at the time of this posting and so I’ve just had time to catch up. I was present at the original sendoff but haven’t seen your wonderful description of the experience until this posting. Bless you, your heritage, and the commitment to such a strong honor and tradition for our region.

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