By Jamie Zabel
Photo courtesy of Robin Clark
The importance of a strong connection to one’s past and one’s family was a central theme for the Three Sisters Canoe Family, one of the families that participated in the Tribal Journey’s canoe voyage to Nisqually in 2016. I sat down with Robin Clark, one of the few non-indigenous participants invited on the journey, to talk about his experience of this powerful event.
In a discussion about the importance of one’s past, it is crucial to mention Robin’s own. He is 1/8th indigenous as his great-grandmother is Algonquian, from the northern part of Ontario. Growing up, his mother and father made sure to give Robin a lot of time in nature, spending weekends camping and summers with both sets of grandparents doing everything from working on his grandfather’s trap line to spending time on Saturna Island in the Gulf Islands. This fostered a deep appreciation for nature in Robin, leading him to complete a technical degree following high school and later a bachelor’s degree in Forestry. His respect for the earth led to opportunities working in indigenous communities where he developed relationships and trust with the people there. His invitation to the Tribal Journeys event last year came about as a result of his efforts locating red cedar in order to build three canoes used on the journey.
The journey took Robin and his Three Sisters Canoe Family from Birch Bay to Nisqually, a 14-day trek where, at times, they would pull (what paddling is called in this context) six hours a day with only a few breaks. During rests, the canoe family got the opportunity to converse with each other and they often sang canoe songs while they were in the act of pulling itself. However, there were incredible amounts of time where it would only be the swishing of the paddles and the rustle of clothing, allowing them to fully appreciate the immensity of the ocean around them. This, Robin said, offered him “the perfect opportunity to be free,” to allow his thoughts to roam to more important things than shopping and to-do lists, things like what a true connection to one’s ancestors really means.
A large part of the travel to Nisqually was learning songs and dances, and hearing stories in the evenings after the day’s travel. These were to be shared, at the end of their journey, with the host community, the Nisqually Indian Tribe, as well as with the roughly 100 canoe families that also participated. After fourteen days of practice, the songs and other presentations would be fine-tuned when it came time to share. This learning process particularly involved the youth that were along on the journey, as these songs and dances were not known by many of them beforehand and are an important part of their culture. However, this was not the only way in which the canoe family intended to pass on their heritage. The youth were also taught another traditional indigenous experience which would have a more personal connection than anything else.
Often, in ceremonies or even other, less formal gatherings, when an indigenous person stands up to introduce themselves, they not only say who they are, they also say who their mother and father are, who their grandparents were, and even who their great-grandparents were, if they know. Indigenous identity is not simply an individual one, it encompasses those who came before as well. This was something that many of the youth got the opportunity to learn while on the travel. They learnt how to stand up and declare their identity in front of thousands of people, their identity as not simply another face in the crowd at their high school, but as an indigenous person with a rich heritage that they are proud of. One little nine-year-old girl had never even spoken in front of her class before, but with the help of the nightly practices during the canoe journey, she was able to make this powerful declaration in front of nearly 3000 people.
This idea of acknowledging and taking pride in one’s past resonates deeply with me. I have been blessed enough to have close relationships with my grandparents on both sides, all of whom love to tell stories about themselves and the people who came before them. These stories reveal the incredible strength that my ancestors displayed during the trials of their lives, whether it was during war or adjusting to life in a new land. Whenever I find myself struggling, these stories and the strength that my family showed in the past helps me to find strength and hope for the future. This is the power that I find in knowing where you come from, but the purposeful remembrance of personal history that indigenous peoples practice takes appreciation of the past to an entirely new level. Not only does this remembrance keep them grounded in who they are but it also keeps their cultural traditions and practices alive so they can be taught to future generations. Connectedness to the past was central to the Three Sisters Canoe Family’s journey to Nisqually, and is something that we can all learn from. All of us have the right or even the duty to remember those who came before us and to think about what that heritage means for our lives. While we are individuals, we have deep connections to our ancestors, and there is so much that we can learn from them.