WATCH: 2016 Paddle to Nisqually preparations get into high gear

During a July 13th work session at the Billy Frank Community Center volunteer Elizabeth John Vantiem finishes a lightweight shawl which will be worn by a ceremonial dancer as the Nisqually tribe prepares to host the 2016 Paddle to Nisqually. The w
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During a July 13th work session at the Billy Frank Community Center volunteer Elizabeth John Vantiem finishes a lightweight shawl which will be worn by a ceremonial dancer as the Nisqually tribe prepares to host the 2016 Paddle to Nisqually. The w


Nisqually tribe prepares for upcoming Canoe Journey

July 18, 2016 04:58 PM

The Nisqually Reservation has been abuzz with activity as volunteers prepare for the upcoming Canoe Journey.

“We’re excited; it’s coming soon,” said Carrol Clark, as she cut out material for vests that will be worn by the tribe’s dancers and other participants during the event July 30-Aug. 6. “This is crunch time.”

Thousands of people are expected to descend on the Port of Olympia on July 30 to watch more than 100 tribal canoes arrive at the tip of the Port Of Olympia peninsula. Given the tide predictions, the landing ceremonies are expected to begin about 1 p.m. that day, according to organizers.

Nearly a dozen tribes and First Nations from Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest have already begun their journey along the saltwater highway to Nisqually’s traditional territory known as the Salish Sea. They are stopping at coastal tribal communities along the way.

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From the west, the canoes were scheduled to land at Neah Bay on Monday and head down the Strait of Juan de Fuca this week, according to a map posted on the Canoe Journey Facebook page. From the north, they are scheduled to arrive at Lummi, near Bellingham, on Wednesday. Several of Nisqually’s canoe family members plan to leave for Lummi on Tuesday to join in the last part of the journey, which includes stops hosted by the Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes.

“It’s all about healing and prayers when you’re out there on the canoe and you’re pulling,” said Kahelelani Kalama of Yelm, who has participated in several canoe journeys. “And it gets tough, but all you’ve got to do is keep praying because our ancestors traveled that way a long time ago, and we can do it. … They didn’t have support boats like we do.”

The event, which also is referred to as the Paddle to Nisqually, will be followed by a traditional celebration on the reservation from Aug. 1-6. Most often referred to by participants as “protocol” (and sometimes called a potlatch), the event will include drumming, dancing, feasting, gift-giving and other cultural sharing. The canoe landing and protocol celebration are both open to the general public, but there may be times when cameras and video devices aren’t allowed, officials say.

“It’s the most awesome experience,” said Clark, a dancer who has participated in numerous canoe journeys. “You have to realize the people that are on the canoes have paddled many hours, many miles. Each of them are carrying their own stories, which some of them will share. So you welcome them with your arms open.”

But first, there’s much work to be done to prepare for all of those canoes, their support teams, visitors and other participants.

On Saturday afternoon, volunteers gathered at the Nisqually’s Billy Frank Jr. Community Services Center to work on projects for the event. Sewing and serger machines rattled over shiny black, gold and burgundy fabric for dresses, shawls and other regalia that will be worn by the host tribe’s participants.

The scent of freshly cut lavender filled the air, as volunteers arranged the flowers into small bouquets.

Meanwhile, coconut oil and other ingredients for homemade soap bubbled in the kitchen. The tribe plans to give out 1,440 bars of the natural soap to participants.

During the past several months, volunteers also have been creating necklaces, baskets, drums, paddles, key chains and bentwood boxes that will be given away.

“We’ve been here every day, working hard,” said Desirea McCloud as she worked on a dress for the celebration. “Sometimes we’re here until 11 o’clock at night.”

In fact, the tribe is still looking for volunteers to help in a variety of ways, from cleaning up the campground to finishing gifts.

“It’s never too late,” Clark said. “We’re always appreciative, and we welcome anyone who wants to come help us.”

Volunteers can drop in to help with preparations at the Billy Frank Jr. Community Services Center (directly behind the tribal headquarters at 4820 She-Nah-Num Drive SE) in the days and evenings leading up to the event. Go to and fill out a form or call the tribal headquarters 360-456-5221 during business hours for more information.

In addition, the Port of Olympia has a call out for volunteers for the July 30 event; to learn how to get involved, go to

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton