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Tribal canoe races stops in Port Townsend

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The Port Townsend community was again made part of a sacred Native American ceremony, as the “Paddle to Puyallup” pulled ashore on the beach beside the Port Townsend Marine Science Center in Fort Worden State Park July 23.

No matter the tribe or nation, each canoe to arrive asked for permission to come ashore. Both the request and the traditional response of “Come ashore, come ashore” were often voiced by younger members of the canoe families.

Daniel Milholland, a volunteer “puller host” for the Port Townsend landing of the “Paddle to Puyallup,” anticipated the beach would receive at least 31 canoes that Monday afternoon, with roughly around 20 tribes represented between them, from throughout the British Columbia and Washington coastlines.

“Every year, there’s a different final destination, which affects how many canoes pull ashore here in Port Townsend,” Milholland said. “Depending on that year’s destination, and what side of the Salish Sea they’re coming from, we’ve received as few as four to five canoes, and as many as 40 to 50 canoes.”

With the number of canoes that had already pulled ashore by the early afternoon hours of July 23, Milholland expected he and his fellow volunteers could be hosting and feeding between 900 to 1,500 canoe rowers that night, at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.

“Year to year, you never know what to expect,” Milholland said. “But it’s an opportunity to connect with the living history of the place where I’m from.”

Carole Huelsberg, who also lives in Port Townsend, offered a similar sentiment.

“I love native culture, and I support its preservation, especially after all the ways in which it’s been abused, neglected and maltreated,” Huelsberg said.

Tribal elder Vince Ambrose and 21-year-old tribal rower Anela Jones came from almost opposite ends of the Pacific coastline, but their journeys share some essential parallels.

Ambrose is a member of the Hesquiaht First Nation, based on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, while Jones is a member of the Quinault Indian Nation, a federally recognized tribe of Quinault, Queets, Quileute, Hoh, Chehalis, Chinook and Cowlitz peoples on the west coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Both Ambrose and Jones have taken part in the canoe journeys for the past three years, but in Ambrose’s case, he credited a group of tribal youth with showing him the way.

“It was a group that had gone on the Muckleshoot tribal journey in 2006,” Ambrose said. “The youth I spoke to had thought their task so impossible at first, so when they actually achieved it, they felt like they’d done something really worthwhile. It took me 10 years, but I got my act together and went on the canoe journey in 2016 with my cousin.”

Ambrose described the canoe journeys as part of a healing process for his people, even as he hastened to point out that everyone takes part in the journeys for their own reasons.

“It’s a reawakening of our ancestral trading routes, from long before us,” Ambrose said. “It’s always a good experience, because you go through every emotion over the course of the trip.”

Jones agreed about the healing quality of simply being on the water, which has brought her back twice over, in spite of how challenging she finds the act of pulling her oars through the water itself.

“It’s all worth it, to be with your family,” Jones said. “It’s an experience you need to have, because it’s not what you see every day. It’s wonderful to be part of all these native peoples, coming together as one.”

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