THE JOURNEY


Emmett Oliver by Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen

For at least 8,000 years before Euro-Americans arrived, there flourished on the western shores of the North American continent a people and a culture highlighted by the omnipresent dugout canoe.  They hunted the sea, the woods were full of game and berries, and the air with fowl.  Food was easy to find.  They created masks and totems and made their houses and canoes from the wood; they shared an essential friend in the cedar tree.

They made clothes and blankets from its thick brown pelt.  They created masks and totems and made their houses and canoes from the wood.  They built strong seaworthy racing canoes to engage in annual competitions between the villages.

All the young strong men helped paddle the large canoes, and one of the best and strongest was Emmett Oliver, a young Quinalt Indian from the Western coast of Washington state.

By 1985 dugout canoes were almost a lost art in the Pacific Northwest, found mostly in museums.  Some had not carved a canoe for over 50 years, and some tribes had never done so.

Emmett Oliver, then the Superintendent of Indian Education for the State of Washingon, remembering the unifying effect the canoe races had had in the early years, decided to return the  event, giving particular pride back to the various tribes.  Each group would of course be responsible not only for carving their canoe, but for obtaining permits, raising money, and cutting their own trees.  Carving workshops were formed and finally, framed by the rising skyline of the city of Seattle, 18 canoes were ready to paddle across the Puget Sound.  With Emmett aboard a Coast Guard command vessel, and with 5,000 people ready to greet them, Paddle to Seattle was accomplished on July 21, 1989.  The paddlers performed as though they had manned those canoes lifelong.  Their shoulders bore the traditions of 8 millenia.

This year Emmett’s son, Marvin Oliver, well known artist and professor of Art at the University of Washington, has designed a North Coast painting on the sides of the Oliver Family canoe, and Emmett’s daughter Marylin Bard, along with 2 granddaughters, will be included in the crew.   The race has grown exponentially year by year, with 89 canoes taking part in 2011.

This year in July,  when the first of 100 canoes are spotted, and with sunlight reflecting off the waters of Puget Sound, a very old man in his 100th year will be on the shore, waiting for the first canoe to beach.  The strong muscles of his youth have long been absent, his eyesight may be weak, but his heart is strong, and in his memory he feels the pull of the water, the sunlight on his back, and the thrill of the race as each paddler chants and shouts out his encouragement to his companions.  The pride in his family is strong, knowing that this race is part of the legacy he has left for his family and for his people.

 

THE SWIMMER


They sat quietly, the boat drifting slowly, watching a ripple line on the clear and sunless water.  A run of humpback salmon was entering the river to spawn and two or three feet beneath the surface they could see hundreds of silvery fish, pressed tight, moving secretly, almost stealthily, with a kind of desperate urgency, to reach a destination they knew not where.  They watched, fascinated until they had passed and for a moment they were not sure that this silent happening  had occurred at all.

The boy and his grandparents were fishing in the Queen Charlotte Strait north of Vancouver, British Columbia.  The Kwakiutl people of the North Coast call the salmon “the swimmer”, and he usually enters the river at night on the way upstream to spawn in the place where he was born.  On the way, he passes thousands of fingerlings on their way downstream to the open sea where they are free.  Nobody knows how far they go or where.  When the time comes to return, their bodies tell them, and those hatched in the same stream separate from all the others and come home together.

They pulled their boat up onto the sandy shoreline to eat their lunch, and as ate they told the boy stories of the Indian people who have lived along these shores for millenia.  “I would like a tattoo” the boy said .  The grandmother told him he should have something to show what spirit  lives in him, in  the way the Indians did to show their family clans.  “But what am I” asked the boy  “You are a salmon” said the grandmother.  “Why is that?” asked the boy.  “You have been a swimmer since you were a small child, so you are a salmon.  If you like, I will design a small salmon tattoo for you.  It will be your clan sign”

The boy grew up and finished his education and was ready to leave his family and earn his own living far away from his home.  He was leaving his boyhood behind and would not find it again.  As the grandmother said goodbye, she said to him “Be mindful of your salmon tattoo.  It will remind you that you must always return to your home.”

May you all walk in balance.  Aho