Over many generations, westcoast Aboriginal people have developed a sophisticated and complex culture evolving around the Pacific Ocean, which served as both their highway and pantry. This bountiful resource led to the development of the canoe as their primary means of transportation and to the strong spiritual connection with the ocean.
On long journeys, BC's coastal people traveled together in huge canoe gatherings called qatuwas ("people gathered together in one place"). Paddling and singing, the travellers would acknowledge each territory that they passed through and they, in turn, would be welcomed and hosted in each territory with appropriate ceremonies and feasts.
With the advent of highways and other forms of transportation, the qatuwas became an outdated method of travel. However, the desire to renew traditional methods of encouraging identity, spirituality and self-discovery has resulted in the strong resurgence of the canoe culture.
As part of the Expo 86 World's Fair in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1986, a single canoe from Bella Bella (Heiltsuk territory) traveled to Vancouver to attend the fair's opening ceremonies. In 1993, the Heiltsuk people invited other First Nations to paddle to Bella Bella for their QATUWAS Festival, and twenty five nations accepted the challenge. In 1994, a Tribal Journey became a part of the Opening Ceremonies at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. Since then, the Tribal Journeys initiative has continued to grow, and many First Nations have started to design and build traditional canoes for the journey, re-asserting their historical and spiritual ties with the ocean.
The 1997 North American Indigenous Games Committee is coordinating the largest cultural qatuwas in Canadian history. Canoes from the Northwest BC coast will leave their northern territories in mid-July 1997 and congregate at Fort Rupert for the official start of Tribal Journeys - A Spiritual Quest. The quest will include ceremonies and feasts in dozens of coastal communities. On August 3, 1997 Tribal Journeys will paddle into Victoria's Inner Harbour to culminate in the Traditional Coast Salish Welcome.
"The resurgence and celebration of our
First Nations canoe cultures serves as a testament to the courage, strength, dedication,
commitment and spirit of our ancestors. We honor them as we work together, gather
together, and create a legacy for our children and our communities."
Photos by Herman Rebneris from 1994 Tribal Journey.
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