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Intertribal canoe trip from Oregon to Seattle will set out for first time since COVID

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On Monday, an epic journey will culminate at a beach in Seattle. Canoes paddled by Indigenous people from all over the West Coast are convening for an annual celebration that is resuming for the first time since the pandemic began. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Emily Cureton Cook joined one canoe on the first leg of its 500-mile voyage and brought back this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

EMILY CURETON COOK, BYLINE: On the banks of the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, 20 young people line up beside a canoe that's as long as a school bus.

JEFFERSON GREENE: All right. So lifejackets are going to be over here. So go ahead and grab a jacket.

CURETON COOK: They come from different tribes, but they all share a common history with the canoe. For years, it was how people in the Pacific Northwest traveled, fished and visited one another.

J GREENE: Nice and easy, on three - one, two, three.

CURETON COOK: This canoe is modern. It's made of plastic, and it's one of over a hundred vessels that are traveling by river and sea to visit the Muckleshoot Indian tribe. The canoes' arrival will be followed by a week of celebration. The tradition started about 40 years ago, and it's become beloved by many Northwest tribes.

CARLICIA DIXON: Anyone need a paddle?

CURETON COOK: Seventeen-year-old Carlicia Dixon missed this trip during the pandemic. She's of Nez Perce and Warm Springs heritage.

DIXON: I'm taking this journey to find where I'm at spiritually. COVID really did have a big impact on my mental health, physical health and just how I feel.

CURETON COOK: She says being on the water clears her mind.

DIXON: You could think on the water. You could sing on the water. You could - you just find yourself in the water really peacefully.

CURETON COOK: After three years apart, the people on this journey are excited to see each other, but they also carry grief. They've lost people since the last time they did this, says one of the trip leaders, Misty Greene.

MISTY GREENE: I almost, like, still - yeah. Like, I start almost crying too, because, like, you know, because of COVID, we've lost a lot of our elders. And so there's almost, like, a sense of emptiness as well. But that's also, like, a part of, like, our healing.

CURETON COOK: Misty and her husband, Jefferson Greene, run a nonprofit to preserve mid-Columbia River cultures. They say that among those who died were most of the remaining speakers of the region's Indigenous languages, and they want to inspire young people to learn. Jefferson begins a day on the water with a quick lesson.

J GREENE: So this part of the Columbia River is actually called Wimahl (ph). Can you say that word? Wimahl.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Wimahl.

J GREENE: Wimahl.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Wimahl.

J GREENE: Wimahl.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Wimahl.

CURETON COOK: Jefferson has spent the last 13 years studying and teaching Ichishkiin (ph), a dialect of the Sahaptin language. He says people who join the canoe journey leave as family, whether or not they're related.

J GREENE: You just end up returning to home yearning for this constant connection to people, and the thing that connects you are the songs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

CURETON COOK: For 24-year-old Samuel Jim, who's Yakama, this is the first time he's ever been on a canoe. And he says it's been beautiful to share cultural knowledge with other people on the trip.

SAMUEL JIM: I really want to dive back into my culture, have that experience and - so I can teach that to my son.

CURETON COOK: When the canoe comes ashore at the end of the day, supporters who follow along on land are there to cheer.

(CHEERING)

CURETON COOK: As the group nears Seattle, dozens more canoes join them. At the destination, thousands of people will gather to eat, dance and sing day and night through the week.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Cureton Cook in Cascade Locks, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Cureton Cook / OPB