Canoes from communities south of Juneau led by the One People Canoe Society land downtown on Tuesday to cheers and songs from people on shore. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Canoes from communities south of Juneau led by the One People Canoe Society land downtown on Tuesday to cheers and songs from people on shore. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Paddling to Celebration in traditional canoes a journey of healing, remembrance and kinship

New and longtime participants arriving in downtown Juneau say trip reconnects them to ancestors.

Avery Herrman-Sakamoto’s first canoe journey was as one of five paddlers from Petersburg in a traditional Tlingit yaakw that joined a Wrangell group making a multi-day paddle to Juneau for this week’s Celebration. She said her father inspired her.

“He passed away four years ago,” she said after the nine canoes landed in downtown Juneau at midday Tuesday. “But he would have signed me up for this without telling me and then he would have been like, ‘you’re going on this, by the way.’ I could feel him supporting me. I have his ashes with me right now. Then also, representing my community.”

Hermann-Sakamoto said her favorite part of the journey was experiencing her first cold dip.

“It was a really beautiful, small ceremony in Sumdum Bay,” she said. “I’m S’eet’kweidí (Eagle-Killer Whale) from that area and it was really cool to do my first dip in my clan ancestral home.”

She plans to continue paddling in Petersburg after returning from Celebration, a biennial four-day Indigenous gathering of thousands of people for dances, art and fashion shows, a parade and other activities.

The journey spearheaded by One People Canoe Society has taken place leading up to Celebration since 2008, growing in participation every two years. At the same time this year another group of canoes departing from Haines landed at the Auke Village Recreation Area.

Coming from the south, Brooke Leslie paddled to downtown Juneau on Wrangell’s kéet yaakw (killer-whale canoe) alongside the One People Canoe Society’s Raven canoe, the veterans’ Eagle canoe, and the three kasaan dugout canoes.

Leslie said she paddled before from Vank Island to Wrangell in 2013, but it was her first time paddling to Celebration.

“It was a bit chaotic, a bit exhilarating,” Leslie said. “We had the stomach flu passing through our entire group the whole time. But ultimately, it brought us together as a family. We made very meaningful connections. Not just our group, but everybody that’s paddling together, good relationships.”

Brooke Leslie waves from Wrangell’s kéet yaakw (killer-whale canoe) while landing in Juneau on Tuesday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Brooke Leslie waves from Wrangell’s kéet yaakw (killer-whale canoe) while landing in Juneau on Tuesday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Corey Marsden also paddled on Wrangell’s kéet yaakw canoe. It was his second time paddling to Celebration. He said he’s seen participation grow significantly. In 2012, there were just three canoes that landed; this year there were nine.

“On our canoe we asked, ‘what is everyone paddling for?’ For me specifically, it’s for my grandmother, she pushed for me to know my culture,” Marsden said. “She passed in 2011 which was the year before I did my first canoe journey. I did two canoe landings in Wrangell and then the Hōkūle‘a. Every time I pick up a paddle it’s in memory of her and pushing just to make sure that I’m doing her proud.”

Marsden added a thank you to Doug Chilton, president of the One People Canoe Society, who he said has pushed reviving the tradition of paddling to Celebration and inspired many to join the journey.

The Cook Inlet Native Head Start program brought two canoes down to Wrangell from Anchorage to join the journey to Celebration. In this picture, CINHS lands in their Xixch’ dexi (Frog Backbone) canoe on Tuesday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The Cook Inlet Native Head Start program brought two canoes down to Wrangell from Anchorage to join the journey to Celebration. In this picture, CINHS lands in their Xixch’ dexi (Frog Backbone) canoe on Tuesday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The Cook Inlet Native Head Start program brought two canoes down to Wrangell from Anchorage to join the journey to Celebration.

Ethan Petticrew, CINHS program executive director and team lead, said he’s dreamed of this moment since he was young. Petticrew is Kiks.ádi from Wrangell and lives in Anchorage.

CINHS pulled the canoes in trailers from Anchorage to Haines and took the ferry to Wrangell where they were greeted by a welcoming ceremony. Before launching from Wrangell, the CINHS Tlingit-designed red canoe was honored with a naming ceremony.

It’s named Xixch’ dexi (Frog Backbone) in honor of Shaawat Shoogoo (Marge Byrd), matriarch of the Kiks.ádi clan. The other CINHS canoe is a Tsimshian design, named “Raven Trickster brings Tsimshians to Anchorage.”

It was the CINHS program’s first journey to Celebration as a program together. The canoes were purchased two years ago and had only been put in the water once before their 180-nautical mile voyage to Celebration. Petticrew described it as a spiritual experience.

“Most of it was all paddling,” Petticrew said. “Very few times did we get pull. We got to hunt along the way. We hunted seal, we ate the whole thing. We consumed it all. And then we had crab one day and we had halibut another day. We wanted to not just paddle every day, we wanted to stop and live like our ancestors as well. It was healing. It was cleansing. It really connected me with who I am and our ancestry.”

For Clifford Williams, paddling has been a healing journey through his addiction. He paddled with the One People Canoe Society’s group on the Raven canoe.

“This is my 20-year sobriety trip,” Williams said. “I quit drinking. I made friends and now the whole group calls me uncle, and I love it. I couldn’t wait to come back. I never learned how to dance ‘cause I drank too much. Just the other day, they showed me how to dance. I take my grandpa’s regalia out of retirement and I’m going to start using it. I didn’t think I’d ever make it.”

Williams grew up in Yakutat and is returning there on Wednesday for work. Back home, he volunteers as a firefighter for the Yakutat Fire Department and runs his business, “Cooper’s Cab.”

He said paddling for the past 20 years and staying sober has made him someone children can look up to.

Jim Zeller, skipper for the One People Canoe Society’s Raven canoe waves while landing in downtown Juneau on Tuesday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Jim Zeller, skipper for the One People Canoe Society’s Raven canoe waves while landing in downtown Juneau on Tuesday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Jim Zeller of the One People Canoe Society is the skipper for the Raven canoe. He is Deisheetan of Angoon and lives in Juneau. The Raven canoe traveled up the narrows to Petersburg from Wrangell. It was the One People Canoe Society’s first time taking that route to Celebration. Zeller said they camped on the beach all the way up and “it was amazing.”

“I loved it,” Zeller said. “We laughed. We sang songs. We danced on the beach. We had a fire. We saw killer whales. We had a great time and the weather was beautiful. There was a lot of cold and wet, but there was times where it would open up and you could see the beauty of the land.”

He added the canoe landing downtown was energetic.

“You just feel excited,” Zeller said. “And when you come in, and you see all those spaces on shore, all the smiling faces, everything you went through to get there is worth it. It’s hard to pull through that tough water because we went through some tough water in (Cape) Fanshaw. We pulled through it.”

It was Kylee Guthrie’s first time paddling to Juneau. She joined the One People Canoe Society’s Raven canoe and will dance all through Celebration.

“Doing this for our ancestors,” she said. “And our loved ones that aren’t here with us right now.”

Corey Marsden and Kylee Guthrie pose with Guthrie’s drum for a photo at their campsite in Juneau on Tuesday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Corey Marsden and Kylee Guthrie pose with Guthrie’s drum for a photo at their campsite in Juneau on Tuesday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

People can join the One People Canoe Society by reaching out to their Facebook page. Along with canoe journeys, One People Canoe Society hosts paddling workshops across Southeast Alaska.

• Contact Jasz Garrett at jasz.garrett@juneauempire.com or (907) 723-9356.

More photos from the canoe landing:

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

(Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

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