Slideshow: River journey feeds tribe's traditions

The canoes cut quietly through the Snoqualmie River under a cloudless sky. Four people paddle in each canoe.

“Pull together!” shouts L.J. Mullen, the skipper of one canoe.

The crew focuses on the woman at the canoe's front — the lead puller. They dig their bladed, cedar paddles into the water in unison with her.

L.J. calls to the other canoe, making a noise that comes from deep in his chest.

The other canoe's skipper, John Mullen, answers.

The two canoes carry Snoqualmie indians on the 'journey' — an annual trip from near Snoqualmie Falls to past Duvall. The trip is a way to introduce younger tribal members to their heritage.

During the two day trip, the group travels down the same waterway that connected their tribe's ancestral lands, which stretched from North Bend to the Skykomish River.

The river was the central axis of the tribe's world. It was a source of food, commerce and travel.

The journey calls back to when the tribe traveled twice a year down the river to collect food — oysters, geoducks and rabbit, among others — from Puget Sound, said John Mullen, the tribe's master carver. Today, the river feeds the tribe's traditions. It nurtures the next generation's ties to its heritage.

Snoqualmie youths have a tough time balancing their lives in the modern world with the tribe. There are plenty of distractions — school, friends, dating, sports, work — vying for their time. The journey offers them a chance to step into another world.

Before they put in, everyone surrenders their cellphones.

“It gets you out from the world, and you don't have to worry about anything but the river,” said Kaleb Calley, 14. Beside one day last year, it was his first time on the trip.

Sitting in front of Calley, Whitney Coby, 18, was on her fourth trip.

“I've had butterflies in my stomach. It's my favorite thing all year,” the West Seattle resident said.

The trip was also a much appreciated distraction from her break up with her ex-boyfriend.

Also in the canoe was Coco Berry, 15, who is part-Navajo and lives in Issaquah. Steering the canoe was L.J., or 'Little John', Mullen. His father, John Mullen, steered the other canoe.

Before putting in, John showed how the inexperienced kids how to row — or 'pull' — as part of a team. Everyone in a Snoqualmie canoe has a specific job.

The lead puller sits at the bow, setting the pace for other pullers and calling out river conditions for the skipper. Next are the pullers, who keep their strokes in cadence with the lead. In the stern is the skipper, the most experienced member of the crew, who steers the canoe.

The canoes are hand-carved from cedar and fit five comfortably. Long and slender, they ride low in the water. The paddles are also hand-carved from cedar with diamond-shaped blades.

“This is my first paddle,” L.J. says, holding up his brightly-painted paddle. “For our ancestors, they were first weapons, too, when they came up on enemies.”

That is the purpose of the trip — for Snoqualmies to ride the same river their ancestors did paddling with traditional paddles, to smell the canoe's cedar scent, to see wildlife darting around the river.

A falcon swoops overhead. L.J. orders everyone to take their paddles out of the water, as the bird glides by on its outstretched wings.

The bird passes.

“Can anyone tell me what our ancestors used to eat from the river?” L.J. asks.

There is a long pause.

“Anyone?” he says, coaxing them.

“Fish,” Caleb says.

“That's right. They fished salmon, and they gathered freshwater mussels,” L.J. says.

As the canoe continues downriver, they spot the occasional salmon and other fish. At one point, the riverbed is littered with dark, freshwater mussels. L.J. explains how Snoqualmies would use sticks with three prongs to pluck the mussels off the riverbed.

“You could sit all day doing that,” he says. But he doesn't like their sandy texture.

At several points, tribal members wave from the river banks. L.J. tells everyone to raise their paddles as they drift past an elder.

Pulling down the river, they sing traditional songs, such as the eagle song and canoe song, and more contemporary ones, such as “You Are My Sunshine.”

They take their time working down the winding river, stopping here and there for a short break or taking a plunge in the water.

Sometime in mid-afternoon, the two canoes pull out of the river after crossing under the Northeast Tolt Hill Road just south of Carnation. The Snoqualmie's capital village was located on a bluff on the river's west bank. The legendary chief Pat Kanim lived there. The tribe's current chief is descended from Kanim.

The tribe's drum leader, Jessy Lucas, and a dozen tribal members greeted the canoes as they pulled into sight. Lucas, 24, is Choctaw, a southeastern tribe, but lives in Issaquah and has been a member of the Snoqualmie tribe for 11 years.

As drum leader, Lucas is in charge of the tribe's ceremonial traditions, including its songs. Ten years ago, the tribe had three songs. Today, it has gathered more than 60 songs.

“Things are being lost — language, traditions — because there are other things vying for young people's attention,” he said.

Lucas sees the canoe journey and other traditions as critical to the tribe's continuity.

“To truly move forward, you must know your origins,” he said.

The pullers had a chance to learn more of their traditions that night, camped out at Camp Korey near Carnation. The next day, the put in and rowed past Duvall.

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