On the first Sunday in June, Portland All Nations Canoe Family gathered at Chinook Landing Marine Park along the Columbia River. Parents, elders, and community members watch from the banks as two Chinook canoes make their way through the water. 14-year-old C¿dom¿ (pronounced cheedome) is a member of the Portland All Nations Canoe Family and this is her first time serving as youth co-skipper. She paddles from the back of the group’s new youth canoe, guiding the other youth pullers with her voice as they move through the water.
C¿dom¿ says, “The skipper is the leader who takes the role at the back of the canoe. They control the canoe by steering with the skipper’s paddle. They give commands, like paddles up, paddles ready, pull, right side, reverse, all that stuff. It's amazing. It's a wild thing to do. Being skipper today, it took a lot of courage. This is just kind of like a healing thing for me. Just being here, it makes me feel comfortable with myself. This is my healing; this is my way of life now.”
Instilling confidence through canoe culture and connections between elders and youth is the foundation of Portland All Nations Canoe Family (PANCF), a multi-generational intertribal organization. “Being on the water gives the youth confidence in themselves, builds self-esteem, builds teamwork, builds kinship,” says Renea Perry, the executive director of PANCF. At any given time, the canoe family works with between 15-40 youth and elders who represent over 20 tribes.
In 2018, PANCF was awarded a $25,000 Community Placemaking grant from Metro. These grants support community-driven, equity-centered, arts and culture-based efforts that strengthen people’s connections to each other and the places they care about.
Portland All Nations Canoe Family received a grant to work with Indigenous carver Brian Krehbiel to carve a 24-foot traditional Chinook canoe for the canoe family. Of Chinook, Cree, and Ojibwe heritage, Krehbiel makes canoes for canoe families, tribal entities, and tribal members through his business Agency Creek Canoes. Original plans were for PANCF youth to work with Krehbiel in the process, but COVID altered those plans. From January to June 2020, Krehbiel worked alone on the canoe during the uncertain early stages of the pandemic.
“Just picking up some of those tools that our ancestors left behind has been a lifesaver for me. And so even during this pandemic, it once again was saving my life,” says Krehbiel. “I was still trying to say prayers every day and that canoe was keeping me happy because I knew at some point that the next generation would be able to enjoy that canoe. Knowing what an impact that the canoes had on my life, I couldn't have imagined what life would be like if I had it when I was younger, when I really truly needed some foundation of who I was or where I was going. It's such a blessing to be able to help with that, to be a part of helping create that wonder.”
So, this morning on the Columbia is significant. Portland All Nations is sharing the name of their long awaited first youth canoe, Bangii Ma'iigan, "little wolf" in Ojibwe. They are gathering in ceremony to bless and awaken the canoes from their long sleep during the winter months. It’s the first the canoe family has gathered since the fall before the pandemic began, when they went to “Paddle to Alcatraz” in 2019.
Portland All Nations Canoe Family came into existence in 2013 when Ojibwe Elders Larry Dauphinais and John LaVadure participated in building a traditional birch bark canoe at Evergreen College. The idea was brought back to the Native American Youth and Family Center in Northeast Portland. Through grassroots fundraising, they received sponsorship to build their first canoe, El Lobo, and were fiscally sponsored by NAYA for the first few years with the support of Native community Elders Donita Fry, Mary Renville, Jill Shepard Erickson, Ed and Carol Edmo, Frank and Rosa Alby, Elaine St. Martin, Laura Campos, Ronald True, and many others.
The “Healing of the Canoe” curriculum, collaboratively developed by the Suquamish Tribe, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe and the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, University of Washington with programming for alcohol/drug and suicide prevention was incorporated from early on. Tribal Canoe Journey and Canoe Families are sober events and collectives.
Several of the original PANCF members have started a new canoe family and an Indigenous food garden on Sauvie Island. Now there are two canoe families in the Portland area that respectfully share space in the homelands and waterways of local tribes and serve the Native community.
Throughout the year PANCF holds community events to practice pulling, drumming, singing, and making regalia and gifts for traditional giveaways. Youth are cultural ambassadors who take part in outreach activities. In the process, intergenerational relationships are forged; cultural traditions, stories, and lessons are shared; and the importance of protecting the water is transmitted. Indigenous youth are supported in their sense of themselves and their place in community.
“The intention in our Indigenous communities is that we honor our youth and our elders. And it's very important to us for them to have time to spend together because that's where our stories are handed down to the youth. The youth have their own wisdom. They help us to remember to be flexible and organic while also carrying forward traditions from the elders. Both of our youth leaders, C¿dom¿ and JJ (16), are both co-skippers for the canoe family. They have traveled on several canoe journeys and work together to guide the youth on how to stay strong while working through challenges. They guide the adults on what the youth need from them to make sure youth voices are being heard. We listen to our youth and include them in our decision-making. We draw our strength from them, and they are the reason we are doing what we do," says Perry.
C¿dom¿ sees herself as connected to that passage of intergenerational knowledge and awareness. “It's really amazing because I can learn from my elders and the elders teach us their ways of life. And then I can, in the future, teach the younger ones. I can teach them the ways that my elders taught me.”
C¿dom¿ has a vision that’s grounded in the tradition and future of creativity for Indigenous youth. Along with singing with Portland All Nations Canoe Family, she is working on her dream of becoming a well-known Indigenous choreographer from the region. “My dream for myself is to get some creative activity for the youth,” she says. “There's not a whole lot of youth creators. I teach the little ones our traditional dances, our ways of dancing. I want them to have a voice.”
Of Pomo, Navajo, and Chilean heritage, C¿dom¿ first connected with Portland All Nations Canoe Family when her father began canoeing with the group. At the time C¿dom¿ wasn’t very connected with Indigenous youth, so the Canoe Family has been important to connect with her peers as well as elders. “I wasn't really connected with the others when I was younger. I mainly stayed with my non-Native friends from school, till fourth grade hit. Then it was like, "Oh, here's your people. These are your kanins. That's what we call our cousins in my dad's language. We have become very close to each other. We're family. Even though we're not blood-related, we treat each other like family.”
Renea Perry says, “In our Native communities, we're very relational. And so, the people in our canoe families are our relatives. Plants and trees and water are also our relatives. We're relational to everything where we are. There is a cultural way of being on the water that gets handed down when we are in our canoes – respect, relationship, and reciprocity of care. We get to practice our language or the language of the land. The people, the land, the language is the culture. And so being on the water is part of caring for and protecting each other, the land, and the water.”
Undertaking the annual Tribal Canoe Journey is core to Portland All Nations. The Tribal Canoe Journey began in 1989 with the Paddle to Seattle. On the 100th anniversary of the city of Seattle's formation, Emmett Oliver, a Quinault Elder, got Washington tribes together to paddle to Seattle in their traditional canoes to remind the current occupants of Seattle that they are on Indigenous lands and that Native people are still here.
During Tribal Canoe Journey, Indigenous nations from Alaska to California travel along the Salish Sea to that year’s tribal host nation. Pullers from Portland All Nations Canoe Family travel up to 35 miles per day along the waterways of the Northwest, stopping to rest and visit other local communities along the way. A ground crew of parents, family members, and elders supports the pullers. By the time they’ve arrived at the host nation, they’ve met and traveled with thousands of participants from other canoe families that have made the journey as well.
During the 2019 Tribal Canoe Journey, 26 youth from the Canoe Family made the journey from Portland to the Lummi Nation in what is now called Washington. They also traveled to the Canoe Journey to Alcatraz to honor the 50-year anniversary of reclamation of the island as Indigenous land. In 2020, due to the COVID pandemic, there was no Tribal Canoe Journey, and the Canoe Family brought their programming online. This year, in lieu of the Tribal Canoe Journey, the Canoe Family will take smaller journeys and trips regionally while planning careful, in-person gatherings and continuing online programming.
Just as with the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, Portland All Nations Canoe Family’s vision for the future connects with the history and culture of Indigenous tribes in the Pacific Northwest. “Our hope is to find a home on the waterfront for our organization,'' says Tsali Cross, a board member of Cherokee and Caddo heritage. “Historically, [Pacific Northwest Tribes, including Alaska Native and First Nations] canoes would be stored at their respective villages. There is a long history of using the riverways as highways. Trade, fishing, and just general transportation would happen along the coast and these riverways. Typically, each tribe would have a house just for the canoes.”
For Renea Perry, the riverfront home would be a focal point for the community and a place for Portland All Nation Canoe Family’s growth. “A location to shelter the canoes properly in the winter would also provide a sense of home for our cultural community. It provides a place for us to gather for our celebrations, for socializing with the greater community, and to practice our culture. We would be able to practice our language there. We would be able to share traditional ecological knowledge between youth and elders. It would provide a gathering place for us to maintain those kinship ties. In particular, we're building a community of care to offer other youth services that we are just beginning to define, and a home location would help us start that next growth step.”
C¿dom¿ says, “It's good. It makes you feel stronger. It's okay to cry out there if you had some problems or mental issues. It's okay to pull powerful. That's your land that you have responsibility to care for. The waters are your ancestors. And it's just good to be out there and pray for others who can't be out there with us, others who suffer alcohol issues, drug issues, mental issues. It's okay to be there and pray for them and cry on there as a form of healing.”
Brian Krehbiel speaks to the power and impact of Portland All Nations Canoe Family on the youth. “That connection that we have with that paddle in that water and all the different styles of canoes and paddles we come from... for the youth as they indulge in that practice and see and learn... it's just like one of those answered prayers for my ancestors. Hopefully, if they're having a hard time or a hard day and they're able to remember a good time in the canoe it will help make it a little easier for them. I'm hoping that it helps them with the foundation of just being a stronger human.”
Portland All Nations Canoe Family are in deep gratitude to the Portland and surrounding Native community which includes Elders, Larry Dauphinais, Jill Shepard Erickson, Donita Fry, Mary Renville, Jill Shepard Erickson, and Frank and Rosa Alby, Bea Collins, Ed and Carol Edmo, Elaine St. Martin, Laura Campos, CeCe Whitewolf and Ron, Chris Arthur, Randy Avart, Se ah dom Edmo, Carma Corcoran, Ruth Jensen, Jillene Joseph, Paul Lumley and so many others for their continued guidance and support.