Twice a week about 18 paddlers from Beecher Bay First Nation pile into a canoe and practise cutting though the water as a group while singing traditional seafaring songs.
The group of Beecher Bay residents, mainly youth and elders, are preparing for this year’s Tribal Journeys, a canoe trip that stops along reserves of various First Nations to the final destination of Swinomish reservation on the Puget Sound.
Canoes from First Nations up Island will arrive at Beecher Bay in the afternoon of July 15. After an evening feat and celebration, the paddlers, including those from Beecher Bay, will continue on their journey.
“Every person I’ve talked to who have been on the Tribal Journeys has come back with a bigger respect for themselves. That makes them a better person,” said Sharon Cooper, Beecher Bay’s Tribal Journeys coordinator. “If we bring up a family of better people they are only going to contribute to society.”
The Beecher Bay residents are keen on the trip and have plenty of volunteers willing to follow the canoe in support boats, as well as drivers to haul gear and tents by land. The community is seeking donations to help cover the cost of food, fuel and to purchase safety supplies.
Individual First Nations from the north coast and both coasts of Vancouver Island will paddle each day from reserve to reserve. They ask the chief for permission to come ashore and stay the night to camp. By the time the armada of canoes arrives at Beecher Bay, the nation will be cooking dinner and breakfast for about 200 people.
The Beecher Bay group needs lifejackets to fit all sizes, including inflatable jackets for larger people. They also need a radar reflector so the canoe will show up on larger ships’ radars when they cross the shipping lane and border into Washington State.
“Otherwise a big ship would never see us coming in a fiberglass canoe,” Cooper said. “Ideally our support boats will be beside us all the time.”
Participating in the Tribal Journeys is an annual event for Beecher Bay, but it found itself suffering a serious setback after its hand-carved cedar dugout canoe cracked. While the traditional canoe is out for repairs, the nation had to fundraise to purchase 36 foot fiberglass canoe costing $18,000.
“It’s 600 pounds, it’s light. It glides across the water and handles fabulously,” Cooper said.
It also has more space.
“We can seat the paddlers side by side now. More people more power for the pullers,” Cooper said. “I want to bring our family together, I want to bring our canoe family together. I want to leave a legacy of sharing.”
Along with learning the swiftly travel across the ocean, the Beecher Bay residents are also learning traditional canoe etiquette.
“When we get into a canoe we can’t have any hard feelings. When we step into a canoe it’s about good feelings. No one is allowed to get in the canoe if they are unhappy or angry,” Cooper said. “Also if someone calls the canoe a boat they get chucked in the water. It’s a canoe.”
Cooper, 40, has never been on the Tribal Journeys, but has always wanted to go. She will be joined by her two teenage children and her 12-year-old step daughter. Even her two-year old daughter will be travelling along side in a support boat.
“I want the youth to know that you can get together and be happy,” Cooper said. “I want them to know that being First Nations is something to be proud of. When I was younger I was ashamed to be First Nations.
“Even though I didn’t go to residential school, I was the end victim of it,” Cooper said. Her father had been through the abusive and dehumanizing residential school system. “I was a victim of abuse. It made me not like authority and I rebelled at a kid.”
Now as a mother, Cooper wants to help First Nation youth feel involved and important.
“I feel it is my generation that needs to stop the circle of violence. I want to turn it around and let them see that there is better in this world,” she said. “I wanted to bring everyone together for goodness and happiness.”
To donate to the Beecher Bay Tribal Journeys trip or for more information contact Sharon Cooper at 250-391-1802.
For more information on the 2011 Tribal Journey, see paddletoswinomish.com.