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Thursday, August 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Paths of our ancestors

Special to The Times

As women from tribal nations, we will remember the 2006 Inter-Tribal Canoe Journey as a call to deeper culture even in the middle of one of the most public events of Northwest tribes.

This year's journey down the saltwater paths of our ancestors is deeply marked by the accidental drowning July 26 of Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation Chief Jerry Jack. This accident must remind us all — from the pullers (paddlers) of cedar canoes to the spectators on shore — that the journey is not just an extreme sport. Nor is it a summertime festival, as many of the reports that appeared in the Western Washington media, before the death, indicated.

No, this journey — which spectacularly brought more than 70 canoes into Seattle harbor, through the Ballard Locks to Lake Washington on July 31 — flows directly from the cultural depths of Northwest tribal nations.

"We look at this journey as a very personal quest," Kelly John, an elder of the Kyuquot First Nation in British Columbia and a canoe leader, told mourners in Sequim after the drowning accident.

In the long months of all-weather preparation, in the long hours pulling through the sea each day of the journey, and during the nights singing by the shore, participants' lives change.

Some kick drugs, or stop drinking. Others find healing. Others still fall in love — even Chief Jerry Jack had planned to marry his fiancée when the journey reached Suquamish.

The cultural power of this journey was no more evident than on the evening of July 26, four days before his planned wedding, when it was announced to participants in the Sequim High School cafeteria that Chief Jerry Jack's canoe capsized.

Later, the chief's daughter, Colleen Pendleton, of Neah Bay, would comment, "We don't say death, we say he has gone on." Later many would say he — and perhaps half the others on the journey — should have donned life jackets.

Immediately after the announcement, the nearly 300 people gathered in the cafeteria erupted in wails of grief. The chief's friends included almost everyone on the journey.

Yet, quickly, the cultural leaders from the many tribes present stepped forward and, over the evening and the next day, they pointed the people's grief toward the songs and beliefs that Chief Jerry Jack had encouraged.

The 68-year-old chief from Gold River, B.C., had spent his life recovering fishing rights for the First Nations across Canada. Inheriting his office at age 7, Jerry Jack studied under the elder Mowachaht-Muchalaht historians of his childhood. Later that knowledge, which tied Canada's First Nations to locations and to traditional practices, would inform lawsuits, land claims and government relations.

In recent decades, after nearly a century when the potlatch traditions of the Northwest coast tribes were outlawed, Chief Jerry Jack knew — as most leaders throughout Indian Country also believe — that a healthy tribal nation is one inexorably tied to its ceremonies and, in this case, their ocean-going canoe journeys.

For the Inter-Tribal Canoe Journey, which began in 1989, the chief's passing — the first death on water — reminded participants of the great respect that their ancestors had to have for the sea.

The ancestors lived with the sea's danger all the time as they traveled these waters, yet many now have little choice but to fit the several-hundred-mile journey into the space of a two- or three-week vacation.

The journey, which will go on for many years, must itself grapple with how a loose-knit organization of tribal canoe families can regulate itself — take advantage of free safety training and donated life jackets; make sure there are support boats accompanying every canoe; keep the canoes together on the water and the people together in the culture.

With the conclusion of this year's journey, there's one more sight for spectators.

Look beyond the bright lights of some tribes' casinos and see the people of many tribes who day to day strive to live for another generation the cultures of their ancestors.

Kara Briggs, Yakama is senior fellow of the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at the State University of New York's Buffalo State College. She lives and works in Portland, Ore. Andrea Alexander, Makah is president of Potlatch Fund in Seattle. She lives in Mountlake Terrace.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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