Great healing occurs, naturally, out on the water in canoes during a unique journey. For days and weeks hundreds of indigenous paddlers are out on the water. This year, which marks the 20th year of the journey, they arrive on August 3 at the Suquamish for another week of cultural celebrations.
The canoe journey is not considered physical or mental health services. But has amazingly positive effects for personal as well as community well-being. It is the powerful expression of a striving culture that has developed on and around the water for thousands of years. Uniting Native communities of the Pacific Northwest Coast of what the western geographer would describe as the two countries, USA and Canada and local tribes simply regard as family that got artificially divided by a border that runs along the 49th parallel. Coming together for the canoe journey shows that participants maintain fraternal relations across these political, legal, and geographic lines that officials tried to run around them.
Native Americans are generally very connected to their immediate and extended families. This support from kin and family during the canoe journey is an important avenue of healing which wouldn’t be found in any studies.
To many indigenous peoples social ties were and in many places the world over still are the real indicator of a person’ worth. Relationships to people as well as places are key to identity and well being. Kinship ties are stressed during ceremonials and a shared dedication to maintaining indigenous traditions/ themes are expressed. This reflects participants’ desire for inclusion and recognition both as indigenous individuals and as members of particular Native families or communities.
Another avenue of healing during the journey is the peace and serenity found in the outdoors. Participants are paddling along ancient waterways eating foods hunted and gathered in traditional grounds. The healing that comes from this cannot be documented either. However is clearly there, evident, very tangible, tasty.
In a health care system that is organized like a profit-seeking industry instead of a social service, representing sickness care, not health care the Native canoe journey is a strong act of resistance against ongoing oppression and health disparities. The primary focus being health promotion and disease prevention. These Native health care alternatives are much more congruent with own values, traditional beliefs, and philosophical orientations toward health and life. Realizing that health and thus life quality is the most valuable we got as human beings.
The Northwest Coast Native cultural revival and health movement must be seen in the context of colonization. Through forbidding local cultures and foods and introducing foreign diseases the settlers took away Native peoples health and thus their future and lives as a people or individual. Breaking health and spirit were the main key to colonizing nations along the coast.
Trying to take back their health into their own hands to guarantee their very survival thus is a very powerful and moving story of hope and determination under extremely difficult circumstances….
People have understood what Kenyan activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o describes: “Economic and political control can never be complete without mental control“. This mental control is achieved through “the destruction or deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their arts, dances, religions, history, geography education, orature [oral traditions] and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser”
On the Northwest Coast Native people therefore for twenty years now are actively coming together and sharing through social interaction and cultural celebrations during the journey. A feeling of hope is created in communities long surrounded by apathy.
Or as Hawaiian activist Haunani-Kay Trask puts it: “Indigenous health is the result of over a decade of thought and creativity by indigenous peoples actively engaged in their collective liberation.”
Still there is a long way to go.