‘Without our culture, we’re an empty shell’: Muckleshoot Canoe Journey returns to Alki Beach

SEATTLE — Hundreds of people lined Alki Beach to watch dozens of canoes land after days of travel. The Canoe Journey’s last stop is Alki Beach. The long haul began in British Columbia. It’s the first journey since it was stopped because of the COVID pandemic. The people who made that journey said while their bodies are sore, each time their paddle went into the water, it was healing.

“For us when we put our paddle in, we’re putting purpose in there, healing from what we want to heal from,” said Sandra Williams, who paddled on the Pink Paddle canoe.

Her canoe was one of about 100 that made the journey.

“We started in the house of British Columbia, paddled for two and a half weeks, and stopped at communities along the way,” said Wallace Watts, who captained the Semakawiis Canoe.

Before they pull their canoes to shore, the canoes ask permission to land. Watts said it’s a call back to how their ancestors traveled.

“Pulling up saying we are hungry we are tired, and they will feed us and they allow us to stay on their land,” Watts explained. “It’s quiet, you can hear everything, and you really become - your paddle becomes one with the ocean. I don’t keep track of the miles because I’d probably stop paddling if I saw how many miles it is.”

The first shove-off happened on the 19th from B.C.’s Shell Beach. The stop prior to Alki Beach’s final landing was expected to see 100 canoes and 9,000 tribal members sing, dance, and celebrate their culture.

“Without our culture, without our beliefs we’re empty, we’re an empty shell,” said the Little Brother canoe’s skipper, Robbie Louis. “Those songs and dances share history those songs and dances tell stories, those songs and dances relieve us of our aches and pains and our cries and our sorrows and our anger.”

The empty spaces in canoes left by the people they’ve lost, said Louis, mirrors the empty spaces in their hearts.

“It’s hard coming back without family, it’s hard coming back with the family that we lost in our pandemic,” Robbie said.

He hears his late uncle’s words in his head while on the water.

“Thinking what he would say thinking how he would tell me to move forward how he would tell me to manage them out in the water. Where to go and how to go and when to leave. It’s keeping him alive,” he said.

Robbie Louis said he’s traveled the route for 21 years and is helping the next generation learn their traditions and keep their way of life alive.

“These individuals of nonindigenous blood want to learn I hope it encourages our little ones how to walk, talk our language and share blessing with their children,” Louis said.

The landing isn’t the end of the celebrations for tribal members. Festivities run through next week for tribal members.