Seventy-two year old Gary Johnson, former chair of the Chinook Tribe, stands with me on the mouth of the Columbia River, the wind blowing so hard we have to nearly shout to hear each other. His hair is white, cut short around his temples, and his voice is strong and eloquent.
It’s the night before Canoe Journey starts, and excitement is in the air. Already, participants are lining their trailers and pitching their tents at Skamokawa park, Washington, preparing to meet several other tribes and begin the iconic two-week journey up the Coast of Washington, The journey is hosted by the Tribe where the canoe families end up, Quinault, and is titled, “Honoring our Warriors.”
Gary Johnson has been on Canoe Journey many times since its inception in 1989. A prominent cultural and educational director, he was raised in Bay Center on the ancestral land. Today, he promotes culture as a way to keep kids off drugs and alcohol, encourage sobriety, and get First Nations people back in touch with their Native roots.
When asked what Canoe Journey means to the people who participate in it, he answers, “My first thought is that the canoe journey is all about teaching our youth and having our entire families here, and, at this point it’s really something that we plan for and work at all year round, ‘cause it’s that important. It includes teaching song and drums and dancing, and these have all been handed down.”
But what is most exciting to Mr. Johnson is the fact that the land where we stand is where his grandmother was born back in 1886. “She was born a couple miles from here when the salmon berries were in blossom. She didn’t have a traditional calendar birthday. And she also moved to Skamokawa and lived here for awhile. That’s the exciting part for us. We’re right in the heart of our home territory.”
Mr. Johnson explained that his grandmother watches over him still, speaking to him and his people through the culture. “That thought just gave me goosebumps,” he tells me, “because we know when that fog and mist comes in, that our ancestors are traveling in that fog, traveling with us, and all those people who have gone before us and have shown us the way.”
By participating in events like Canoe Journey, Mr. Johnson does the same task for the youth that his ancestors have done for him: he shows us a good path to walk in, and we follow, pulling cedar canoes up the shores of Willapa Bay.
by Misty Ellingburg