Canoe Journey participants prepped for Paddle to Puyallup on Columbia River

07.31.2018 Danielle Frost Culture, People, Events, Tribal Employees

By Danielle Frost

ST. HELENS -- The Grand Ronde Canoe Family is more than a name.

After hours of paddling practice, attending planning meetings and the coming together of different Tribal departments, the core group is a tight-knit bunch.

“The biggest goal I have every year is to make sure the group is cohesive and welcoming to new people,” Cultural Education Coordinator Jordan Mercier said. “It is a very close group, so to (a new participant) it can be intimidating. It is important to bridge them in.”

On Friday, July 20, most of the Canoe Family had set up camp at Columbia View Park in St. Helens for three days of paddle practice on the Columbia River to become more adept at navigating before they began the miles of paddling starting from Samish, Wash., and ending in Tacoma, Wash., on Saturday, July 28.

Stops were scheduled to occur at Swinomish, Tulalip, Suquamish and Muckleshoot.

Chemical Dependency Counselor Joe Martineau was participating in his 12th Canoe Journey. Recent surgeries mean paddling for hours is not an option, so he supports the Tribe’s efforts as a part of the ground crew, driving one of the vans and serving in the support boat.

“I help out wherever it is needed,” he said. “My favorite part of the journey is in the evening and the things we do as a family. It shows us how close we are.”

Martineau said he also uses downtime to talk to youth about the dangers of substance abuse and the most recent wave of synthetic drugs.

“These are educational moments that might save their lives,” he said.

When asked to name a favorite aspect of Canoe Journey, Martineau is hard-pressed to choose one.

“It’s really difficult to say a favorite part,” he said. “It’s really amazing the things that have happened over the years.”

Tribal Council member Lisa Leno has been on most of the Canoe Journeys since the Tribe began participating in 2005.

“My favorite part is Landing Day and working together as a family,” she said. “The most challenging part is the logistical piece and making things work with a large group of people.”

Leno said she enjoys the visits with other Tribes along the journey as well.

“Getting the chance to visit their homelands, and showing our singing and dances helps build new relationships,” she said.

The Tribe’s Youth Prevention Department does much of the work with setting up camp and preparing food. Youth Prevention Program Coordinator Cristina Lara, Youth Programs Assistant Shannon Stanton and Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coordinator Valeria Atanacio were at camp on Friday helping to ensure Canoe Family members were comfortable and nourished for the journey ahead.

“We start preparing a month ahead of time for the food,” Stanton said. “We figure out the ingredients, plan the menu and figure out how much to buy. … I love to cook and do things for people.”

The Tribe took two canoes on the journey: Stankiya (coyote) and UlXayu (seal). Skippers are Cultural Education Specialist Brian Krehbiel and Cultural Advisor Bobby Mercier. As of Friday, July 20, 115 participants were registered.

In addition to helping new participants feel welcomed, Jordan Mercier said another Canoe Journey goal is keeping the feeling alive throughout the year.

“I want to work on keeping it living and bringing it home,” he said.

Isabelle Grout, 14, is participating in her third Canoe Journey. She said she enjoys protocol and the dancing.

“I also like to go and watch people from other Tribes that I have met,” Grout said.

Kyoni Mercier, 20, has been part of Canoe Journey since she was a small child. This year, she is serving as a lead puller.

“I enjoy getting to witness everyone else’s culture and knowing where they are from,” she said. “It is cool that we can recognize each other. … Journey is a form of healing. It is a powerful feeling to be on the water. It lifts up our spirits and everyone takes something from this they didn’t know before.”

Andrea Grijalva, 20, made her first journey in 2007 and said she enjoys being on the water.

“It is one of my favorite parts,” she said. “One year I got to do the last paddle and there were 90 canoes lined up for Landing Day. It is one of my favorite memories of journey.”

The Canoe Journey began in 1989 with the “Paddle to Seattle,” held in conjunction with Washington’s 100th anniversary of statehood. The state and indigenous governments signed the Centennial Accord that year, recognizing indigenous sovereignty. Fifteen Tribes and Canadian First Nations participated in the Paddle to Seattle. This year, 20,000 people are expected at protocol.

The Tribe began its 2018 Canoe Journey on Thursday, July 19, when family, friends, employees and Elders gathered at the Community Center to wish the travelers well.

Tribal Elder and past Tribal Council Chairwoman Kathryn Harrison offered an invocation. Current Tribal Council members Brenda Tuomi and Kathleen George also attended.

Bobby Mercier thanked staff members who had worked tirelessly in preparing for the Power Paddle to Puyallup.

“There is a lot of work that goes into this and I am thankful for the staff, and the many hours and meetings they attended to get this done,” he said.

Bobby Mercier, Jordan Mercier, Krehbiel, Cultural Protection Specialist Chris Bailey, Cultural Resources Manager David Harrelson and several Canoe Journey youth and staff sang and drummed, as those gathered joined in.

The Canoe Family was joined in St. Helens by two Māori representatives from the Tauranga district in New Zealand, Tamahau Tangitu and Te Kerekau Nicholas. The Canoe Journey exchange between Grand Ronde and the Maoris has been ongoing since 2009.

This year’s Canoe Journey is hosted by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and has the theme, “Honoring Our Medicine.”

Landing Day was Saturday, July 28, in Tacoma, Wash.

Dinner was served to all participants that evening in Puyallup with protocol set for the next seven days. Protocol continues all day from about 9 a.m. to midnight, allowing canoe families to share their songs and dances. The order of protocol is that the Tribe traveling the farthest to attend goes first. Protocol was held at Chief Leschi School, 5625 52nd St. E, Puyallup.

Canoe Journey was designed as a family-friendly event to familiarize northwest Tribes with the trade routes used by their ancestors and to promote a healthy lifestyle free of substance abuse.

Look for more coverage of Canoe Journey on the Smoke Signals Facebook page, and in the Aug. 15 print edition. Information can also be found at