On the morning of July 9, 2014, four canoes began their journey from Bella Coola to partake in the annual Tribal Canoe Journeys. Hosted this year by the Heiltsuk Nation of Bella Bella, it is estimated that there will be 100 canoes attending the Qatuwas Festival and 5,000 visitors going to Bella Bella for seven days of celebrating, feasting, and dancing.
Tribal Journeys, also referred to as Qatuwas, or ‘People Gathering Together,’ is planning to return to Bella Bella this year, 21 years after its first gathering was held in 1993. The Heiltsuk have played a key role in the resurgence of the ocean going canoe culture along the Pacific North West Coast when they first carved a canoe and paddled from Bella Bella to Vancouver for Expo 86, in 1986 and in 1989 participated in the “Paddle to Seattle”, and at this event invited other tribes to travel to Bella Bella and hosted the 1993 Qatuwas Festival.
Members of the Squamish Nation and their fellow paddlers from Hawaii towed two canoes from Vancouver, BC and were welcomed into Bella Coola by the Nuxalk Nation with a potluck at the Bella Coola Motel Campground. Together, they journeyed for three days with the help of support vessels, arriving in Bella Bella last weekend.
Luke Mack, a skipper, who has been on several canoe journeys, was cautious when speaking of facing the notorious Mesachie Nose, famous for its swirling currents and strong winds. “If the winds pick up we may have to be towed,” said Mack.
To many, this canoe journey is seen as a healing opportunity for all involved. Cultural traditions and knowledge are being revived as traditionally Nuxalkmc were skilled navigators on the water, using the ocean as a highway for trade and attending ceremonies all across the Coast, even traveling as far as the Hawaiian Islands.
Hereditary Chief Q’umulha Rhonda Sandoval is excited to partake in the experience of a lifetime with her husband, Will, and daughter Anuxum. A former commercial fisher and experienced diver, Sandoval is right at home on the water and is hoping this journey will keep the momentum going and revive the Nuxalkmc canoe culture
“First of all I’d like to thank the Creator, for everything He has given us since the beginning of time,” she expressed. “I’d like to thank Him for the opportunity to do the work on the land that is within our traditional being. It is who we are and who we will always be. I’m looking forward to this journey.”
Nuxalkmc paddler Sheldon Tallio was optimistic for the outcome of the Canoe Journey and sees an opportunity for growth. “We need to continue to paddle and get stronger as Nuxalk people,” said Tallio, “We started something and it’s not going to stop, and I believe we will be a host nation and in the near future be able to accommodate that with the support of our Chiefs and elders.”
Along with the healing of spirit, mind and body, a great part of the canoe journey is the cultural exchange that takes place. With around 60 communities descending on Heiltsuk territory, many will have a lot in common, including communities that face social hardship.
Charles Kanehailua is from Hawaii and has forged a relationship with the Squamish Nation after going on prior canoe journeys together. He is interested in seeing how similar the cultures are and finding out if they are facing the same challenges as indigenous cultures in Hawaii. “I want to see if they have the same kind of problems as us, with image, alcohol, drugs, and I want to see how they’re handling it,” he said.
One of the motivating factors for many to do a canoe journey was the opportunity to impact the younger generation. “The whole reason we’re here is to perpetuate the next generation to take our place,” explained Shane Silva from Hawaii. Hereditary Chief Ian Campbell from the Squamish Nation notes that he started canoe journeys as a youth with the support of his uncle Bob Baker. Today he is pleased to be able to bring his own children with him.
Chief Campbell also has a message to today’s youth. “Of the seven billion people on this earth, there are only a million Aboriginal people in Canada. You matter, everything you do counts,” he says. “We have a choice and our choices matter on what it is we are perpetuating; whether it’s hurt, shame, or if we choose to heal and move beyond blame, shame and judgment. Every one of our Native people across this country face those dilemmas and it takes every one of us as individuals to make a healthy choice and collectively that will make us stronger.”
He also encourages youth to start drumming, singing and learning their language, “They have to learn every word they can in our languages and get out on the land,” he said “Climb these mountains, sit up there and meditate and pray, go in those creeks and bath, purify yourselves. Go back to your old teachings. It will make us better human beings.”
As the final canoe paddled out of the wharf on a bright morning, you could hear the paddlers singing the Paddle song. Justin Nelson noted the use of singing being used “to get people motivated and keep the spirit going.” Indeed, we have witnessed an historic event taking place, and its effects are sure to be felt for years to come. The canoes are set to return from Bella Bella this week.