Juneau canoe team proves its mettle at gathering

Posted: Tuesday, August 20, 2002

As the first Alaska canoe team to participate in Tribal Journeys, an annual gathering of canoe teams and people from around the Pacific Northwest, Juneau's One People felt slightly out of place.

That changed when they issued an open racing challenge to the other teams and found themselves racing the Makah whalers, whose members spend a portion of every day on the water.

"They've never been challenged before, so it was a huge thing," said Crystal Fields, captain of the One People's women's canoe team. "The crowd got a huge kick out of it. ... It was a pretty gutsy thing in their eyes."

The One People, using a borrowed wooden canoe, didn't win, said Doug Chilton, captain of the men's team. But they put the Makah to the test, forcing the other team to maintain its high starting pace for the entire race.

"Our team did very, very well. We kept up with them," Chilton said. "The people on shore were just amazed. They were shocked. They got silent."

Then they started cheering, filling the air with cries of "Go Alaska!"

"It turned everything around for us at that point," Fields said.

"We no longer felt like outsiders," Chilton agreed. "We felt like we became part of their canoe family."

Since 1989, American Indians from around the Pacific Northwest have been gathering in growing numbers for the annual canoe journey and cultural exchange. This year, the event took place from Aug. 9 to Aug. 12 on the Quinault reservation in Taholah, Wash.

Fields and Chilton said no Alaska canoe groups have participated before this year. Their fledgling canoe team - One People was founded in June 2002 - decided to take the plunge at the behest of their friend Reggie Ward, a member of the Quinault nation.

"They've always wanted us to come," Fields said. "(But) I think that made a big difference that a member of their organization was here, asking us to go."

Raising money for the trip was the first hurdle for the team, whose members said they began fund raising with the knowledge that only about half of the 30 members could attend. They solicited contributions from local businesses and held a raffle, and were able to bring 15 team members to Washington.

However, the team's lack of a canoe - in Juneau, they practice with a fiberglass model on loan from Sealaska Heritage Institute - meant they weren't able to join the initial journey to Taholah, which began on July 27 in Canada and gathered force as it moved toward the Quinault reservation, picking up canoes along the way.

This year, the last leg of the pilgrimage was stymied by bad weather, which capsized three of the 27 canoes. Despite the cold, rain and fog, all the passengers were saved.

News of the mishap was sobering, Fields and Chilton said.

"We're protected in Southeast Alaska," Fields said. "We're not out on the open ocean, we don't have crashing waves and the fog that can roll in in an instant."

"When we got there, we had no clue that they had run into any problems at all," Chilton said. "It was a scary thought to think that they were out there in that."

Events continued despite the weather, with canoes trucked in and launched into the water near Taholah for the arrival ceremony. The One People team originally planned to use a new canoe carved for them by Robert Peele of the Haida Nation, but it wasn't completed and they were represented in the ceremony by Chilton, who rode in a Mayee canoe.

"It was amazing," Chilton said of the entrance. "I'd never even seen that many canoes before."

The gathering concluded on Sunday with a potlatch at which the Juneau team made a gift of its paddles - one of the highest honors one canoe team can bestow on another - to the Quinault Canoe Society and other high-ranking tribal authorities and were challenged to return for the 2003 gathering in Tulalip, Wash.

The One People team members hope to bring other teams from Southeast with them, Fields and Chilton said. But instead of emphasizing competition, they said they'll try to share the cultural knowledge they gained over the course of the gathering.

"We want to start getting back into the culture where we use these canoes to go on these journeys," Chilton said. "I think every one of the people on our team, regardless of who they are ... has taken a serious interest in the Native culture of this area."

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at geneviev@juneauempire.com.

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