Olympia, WA: Canoe Journey

Two people paddling in a canoe on a large body of water with a hillside in the distance

Photo by Mark Johns-­Colson

How can artist workshops serve to revitalize a community’s identity?

For the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, modernization has threatened many of the traditional cultural practices and arts that are so central to their culture. Yet many members don’t have full access to the economic opportunities that come with modernization. For an annual canoe journey, shared by tribes across the region, the Squaxin Island Tribe stepped up to host the 2012 event and created an opportunity to make a cultural statement about their identity as a “People of the Water.”


Each year, the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest and the First Nation tribes of Western Canada undertake a Tribal Canoe Journey, in which each tribe paddles from across the region to a specified location that changes annually. Likened to the Olympics, the event brings together an array of cultures—and over 100 canoes. In 2012, the landing events were hosted by the Squaxin Island Tribe who chose a waterfront site in Olympia, Washington, for the final ceremonial site. As canoes traced their way down the Puget Sound, each canoe stopped at Squxin Island—a small, uninhabited island of just over two square miles belonging to the Tribe—before their final landing.


The Squaxin Island Tribe is a small, 400-member tribe with roots on a forested island in Puget Sound. It shares a cultural affiliation with the Salish Tribes dispersed across the region. Historically, the relationship of these tribes to non-Native populations has been contentious. As the Pacific Northwest became settled, many tribes lost land, language, and cultural practices as a result of federal policies of assimilation and relocation. Traditional methods of economic self-reliance were further impacted by the imposition of the reservation system, which curtailed their ability to hunt, fish, gather, and harvest.


Because of the economic and cultural challenges they are facing, the tribes across the region search for practices that can help them to celebrate and continue their own traditions. At the same time, they also search for venues to increase understanding of their cultures by non-Native populations. The Tribal Canoe Journey seemed like an opportunity to serve both needs, while at the same time helping the Squaxin Island artisans find ways to access broader markets.


The Squaxin Island Tribe decided that hosting the 2012 Canoe Journey would help them to share their culture with non-Natives. Each year’s festival takes about four years of preparation in order to host the thousands of people that come for the ten-day event. When Squaxin stepped up to host for 2012, the Squaxin Museum and the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center (of Evergreen State College) came together to assist the Tribe with a project that would help focus on arts and culture as the center of their expression of tribal identity. Their collective vision was to create residencies and workshops that would bring the significance of their traditional practices to the attention of broad audiences through their dances, songs, and gift-giving.


The larger Canoe Journey has been in existence for over 20 years and is run through partnerships between the indigenous peoples from across the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian West. As hosts of the 2012 event, the Squaxin Island Tribe partnered with several entities to bring their vision to life. Central to these partnerships was a collaboration with the Squaxin Island Museum and the local Evergreen State College, whose Longhouse Education and Cultural Center helped author the NEA grant, select key artists, and run the residency program. The museum provided critical programming support and space. The City of Olympia and Port of Olympia also stepped in to help coordinate transportation, volunteers, and publicity for the landing event in downtown Olympia.


One of the central components of the canoe landing is a “potlatch” ceremony, during which the Squaxin Island Tribe would offer gifts to other participants. The tribe was determined to offer traditionally made artifacts— not store-bought souvenirs—so the Squaxin Island Museum created 15 separate eight-month art residencies plus numerous community workshops. (While it had originally planned for 10 residencies, plus a part-time curator at the museum, the museum was able to hire the curator from its own budget, allowing the organizers to implement 15 residencies.) These residencies would work not only toward producing the gifts themselves but also they would create an invaluable educational experience and, most importantly, would become a way to continue traditional arts practices. Some residencies also aimed to create large-scale installations that would become landscape elements throughout the community during the festivities.


The event saw a wide range of effects, both measurable and immeasurable. Over 10,000 members of the public attended the events, participating in workshops, watching the canoe landing, and attending performances. The initiative implemented 15 major art residencies, giving artists an opportunity to practice and develop indigenous arts. These artists ranged in age from 10 to 70+ years old and represented 11 tribal groups, including Squaxin. The range of artworks included woven baskets, twined tunics, elk hide painted drums, and painted canoe paddles. Many participating artists were able to elevate their craft, opening new opportunities for exhibition and entrepreneurship. For the more qualitative effects, the event created valuable opportunities for diverse populations to come together in a common celebration, learning about the Squaxin Island Tribal culture. Traditional arts were exhibited throughout the community, giving the public ample opportunity to closely interact with these objects.


The degree of interest that the younger generation of Squaxin Island Tribe members had in pursuing traditional arts was more enthusiastic than many had anticipated. As Tina M. Kuckkahn-Miller, Director of the Longhouse Education & Cultural Center reports, “We were amazed to see how many Squaxin Island tribal members filled the arena with dancers, drummers, and singers during the protocol ceremonies. The Tribe expressed their cultural identity in so many beautiful ways—in the regalia they made, the art that was gifted to thousands of participants, and the many community members of all ages that filled the ceremonial protocol stage. People are still talking about how well they represented themselves as hosts of the 2012 Tribal Canoe Journey.” Administratively, the museum hit some unexpected benchmarks, too. An annual auction at the Squaxin Island Museum saw its attendance set a record high, increasing over 16% from the previous year. Based on the community interest in Squaxin Island Tribal art, the Port of Olympia is now planning a walking trail that connects installations of this indigenous art.



Squaxin tribal carver teaches bentwood box making
The Seattle Times (February 2012)

  • Evergreen State College
  • Squaxin Island Tribe
  • The Ford Foundation

The annual canoe journey event came about when the state of Washington celebrated its centennial anniversary in 1989. The Tribes wanted to make a statement that tribal people are still thriving. The annual event has grown to now include international indigenous participation and remains an important expression of tribal self-determination.

  1. Regalia workshops leading up to the hosting of the Canoe Journey, which allowed community members to learn to make the regalia, as well as the songs and dances.
  2. Drum making workshops for community members to welcome the incoming canoes to shore.
  3. Dance workshops to prepare to share culture as hosts of Canoe Journey 2012.
  4. Art-making workshops so that the tribe would have gifts of cultural significance for their potlatch (or give-away).
  1. Evergreen Longhouse built a replica-longhouse carving studio, which provided a new venue for making more culturally-related art, and coordinated the timing of the Canoe Journey protocols with the opening of the carving studio. Longhouse also administered almost all aspects of the formal grant requirements and related responsibilities. 
  2. The City of Olympia helped coordinate transportation, volunteers and publicity for the Canoe Journey landing in downtown Olympia. 
  3. Squaxin Island Museum identified and contracted with the artists, purchased supplies, promoted the workshops, and coordinated registrations.
  4. Squaxin tribe coordinated all of the aspects of hosting 10,000 people for two weeks.