Power Paddle to Puyallup

Main page content

Tribes from around the world are in the Pacific Northwest to participate in the annual Canoe Journey.



The past is a big part of Patricia Conway’s present. The UW Tacoma alumna and current graduate student majored in history. “I’m interested in how the past impacts us today,” said Conway. 

Conway is an enrolled member of the Puyallup Tribe of Nations, and a participant in this year's Power Paddle to Puyallup, which the tribe is hosting. 


(Photo above: Named the Kwakwati, this is a canoe in the collection of the Puyallup Tribe. Photo courtesy Puyallup Tribe of Indians.)

Medicine doesn’t have to be something you ingest or apply. Medicine can be something you feel but it’s not limited to tactile sensation. Medicine can be amorphous, an indescribable sense of fulfilment, a treatment you might not fully understand. “Your voice is medicine, as in your silence,” said Puyallup Tribal Councilwoman Anna Bean.

The Puyallup Tribe of Nations is hosting this year’s canoe journey. The annual event brings together indigenous peoples from around the world. Canoe families from as far away as New Zealand, New York and Mexico are participating in the “Power Paddle to Puyallup.” Thousands are expected to watch the more than 100 canoes make their final landing on the shores of Commencement Bay. “The landing spot is not far from the liquefied natural gas [LNG] facility,” said Bean.

The Puyallup developed a theme for this year’s journey. “Honoring your medicine” is meant as both prayer and protest. “Medicine helps us heal, helps us get well both in the context of individuals and in the context of taking care of Mother Earth,” said Vice Chairman of the Puyallup Tribal Council David Bean.

UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Danica Miller is a member of the Puyallup Tribe. Her father — Bill Sterud — serves as tribal chairman and is also a member of UW Tacoma’s Advisory Board. “Historically this is always how we’ve operated,” said Miller. “Our lives have always been one of resistance.”

The canoe was once an integral part of life for tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Among other things, the craft made it possible for different tribes to connect. Canoes, like Indigenous language, dances and songs were systematically targeted for elimination by both the federal and state government. In recent years tribes across the country began reclaiming their heritage. The first canoe journey took place in 1989. A handful of tribes participated in the “Paddle to Seattle.” In the intervening decades dozens of tribes have signed on to the yearly event. “By showing that we’re honoring our traditions and our culture we’re letting folks know we’re still here,” said Anna Bean.

There are more than 40 stops on this year’s journey. The distance — some tribes will have paddled hundreds of miles — provides individuals and tribes time to connect with one another. “I’ve seen kids go away as children and come back two or three weeks later as a young man or a young woman,” said David Bean. “You spend this time working together, learning songs and hearing stories from others. There’s a lesson for everyone from the youngest child to the oldest elder.”

Members of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians "pulling" a canoe. Photo courtesy Pullayup Tribe of Indians.

The Puyallup last hosted the canoe journey 20 years ago. “Back then we had our canoe but we didn’t have our songs and we didn’t have our language,” said David Bean. Since 2016 UW Tacoma’s Professional Development Center has worked with the Puyallup to host the Lushootseed Language Institute on campus. The two-week immersive course teaches students Lushootseed — the ancestral language of the Puyallup and many other tribes in Western Washington. The course wasn’t offered this summer because of the time commitment required to host the canoe journey but will return next summer. “Our songs are coming back as is our language,” said David Bean. “I’m excited to share this with our guests.”

The final landing will be July 28. The journey ends with protocol whereby each tribe seeks permission to come ashore. “Tribes or communities will approach in a circle to show they’re coming in a good way,” said David Bean. Protocol is an intricate process and with so many tribes participating the ceremony will take a while. “It’s really a wonderful experience,” said Anna Bean. “This is where we celebrate each other’s culture and traditions.”

Every guest will be given a gift made by a member of the Puyallup. “It’s important to honor those who have traveled to be with us,” said David Bean. “We also want to honor the tradition of giving, giving up yourself and your time. From July 28 to August 4 tribes will spend time together whether that’s at potlatch or just sitting and talking.

Canoes are impressive. Sure, there are faster vessels, machines that run on gas or oil. These craft will get you from Point A to Point B quicker but you’ll miss most of what you need to see. Besides, speedboats run out of fuel, sails rip and ferries break. Canoes are sturdier because they run on something different. They’re powered by the human spirit.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / July 25, 2018
Photos by: 
The Puyallup Tribe of Indians
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu