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An annual canoe journey for many Indigenous tribes has reached the end

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thousands of people gathered near Seattle for a cultural celebration among many Indigenous tribes - an annual journey taken by canoe, sometimes over hundreds of miles. Canoes reached shore last weekend, and then paddlers and their supporters spent a full week at the Muckleshoot reservation, where they camped out, shared food, had dances and song. From member station KNKX, Bellamy Pailthorp has this audio postcard.

BELLAMY PAILTHORP, BYLINE: On the shores of Puget Sound, tribal members stand drumming and chanting as canoes come in to land.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Vocalizing).

PAILTHORP: There's a traditional protocol here. The skipper introduces the canoe, formally announces why they're here and asks for permission to come ashore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The name of this canoe is the Blue Heron Canoe. (Non-English language spoken). We come here today hoping to share good food, good songs, good dances, good work.

PAILTHORP: Canoes are at the heart of Indigenous cultures in the Pacific Northwest. They were used for transportation and hunting. And today, many say they feel connected to their ancestors through paddling and prayer. That's a large part of what this intertribal canoe journey is about. It's also about sharing cultural offerings with other tribes, like gifts, songs and dances.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Vocalizing).

PAILTHORP: Throughout the week, canoe families took the stage of the Muckleshoot Community Center. The first group to perform is the one that traveled the farthest. This year, it's the One People Canoe Society from Juneau, Alaska, though they paddled from nearby Bellingham. Yarrow Vaara is Tlingit and one of their skippers.

YARROW VAARA: We still have camping gear that's soaking wet from our last stop. We still have sand in our shoes.

PAILTHORP: Despite that, she says, everybody is so happy to be at this event. After a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, they're hungry for culture.

VAARA: We've been isolated and separated and segregated in different ways, you know - from COVID, from generations of trauma and different things.

PAILTHORP: Sitting in the bleachers to soak up the presentation is 67-year-old John Stevenson. He's a member of the Muckleshoot tribe, but was adopted by a white family and grew up away from these traditions.

JOHN STEVENSON: Yeah, I didn't know my culture at all. And my beautiful cousins and all my relations here at Muckleshoot taught me the traditions of what it is to be in the canoe family.

PAILTHORP: He says he's deeply moved by this event, especially all the young people in their regalia singing, dancing and carrying their tribal cultures forward.

STEVENSON: It's amazing to see how the Native people have never gone away, no matter what happens. And this is all of us coming together to be able to celebrate our beautiful way of life.

PAILTHORP: One more day of celebration remains before people head home to wait and prepare for next year's journey.

For NPR News, I'm Bellamy Pailthorp in Auburn, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEKI54, JOUL, AND MORRIS GARGANO SONG, "NEW HEAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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