Chinookan-speaking Native American tribes have lived in the Columbia River Basin for more than 15,000 years and used the river as a highway.
American Indians have a continued presence on the river today and many look to the river to connect with their culture.
In mid-July, we joined the Portland All Nations Canoe Family, which paddled much of the Lower Columbia River as part of Canoe Journey, an annual Native American canoe gathering.
On the fifth leg of their week-long journey, they launched their canoe from Beacon Rock at the west end of the Columbia Gorge and pulled 21 miles to Washougal. A support boat followed behind to relieve youth paddlers along the way. Sometimes drumming was heard, sometimes singing, but the sound of paddles hitting the water and waves splashing against the canoe was constant as they rounded Cape Horn.
Elder Frank Alby, a member of the Inupiat community of Native Alaskans, described the journey as spiritual and healing.
“Our canoe pullers, the rowers on the canoe, they use this as an opportunity to connect, not only with the water but the creator who made the water,” Alby said.
For the Portland All Nations Canoe Family, this journey extended to the riverbanks with youth education on traditional ways and environmental stewardship. On a particularly hot day in Celilo, the group practiced songs and dances in the shade. In preparation for a “Washat” ceremony happening later that day, kids braided each others' hair as they watched a video on the Fish Wars of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Participant Jill Shepard Erickson said the Portland group was open to all native people from the city, regardless of their tribal affiliation or where in North America their ancestors originally lived.
“We’re intertribal, urban. We’re honoring all of our tribes,” she said. “The songs that we sing come from different canoe family members, and we always make sure we have permission to sing the songs and share the songs, and we’ve seen beautiful families grow up in the years that we’ve been doing this journey."
J.J. Lowley, a 13-year-old participant, enjoyed that welcoming sense of family.
“It’s called Portland All Nations Canoe Family because we are all nations, and it’s not just one tribe and everything,” Lowley said.
Alby took heart in watching as knowledge and tradition reached a younger generation.
“We understand that if we don’t pass on these traditions to the young people, these traditions will die out. The hard part is getting them to listen,” he said. “And so we try on this canoe journey — every evening we gather the children and we teach them songs and tell them stories and we hope that it sinks in."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Jill Shepard Erickson's and J.J. Lowley's names.