For centuries, the waters of Puget Sound were the highways of the Northwest's tribes. Canoes -- used to fish, travel and hunt whales -- were the tools that sustained life. It requires more than good paddling abilities to steer a canoe through fog, rain and the inevitable swells: You also need the inner strength to manage a stressful journey. Before you harvest the cedar to build canoes, you have to know the prayers and ceremonies to ask permission of the tree spirits. When you travel to other tribes' lands, you must bring stories and dances and songs to share upon arrival. And the kicker: You would never paddle a canoe drunk or high and risk endangering everyone in the boat. Traveling by canoe, in other words, requires the skills necessary to navigate life as a Northwest Native American.
Over the past two decades, in order to reconnect to the old ways, tribes throughout the Northwest have held annual intertribal canoe journeys. In late 1999, Wagner and a handful of other Suquamish joined in the annual paddle; he was struck by the pride and sense of belonging he witnessed in the kids who participated.
"I realized we had this practice that was thousands of years old to keep us healthy. It just hadn't been recorded by the Western world to say, ‘Hey, this works,' " says Wagner, who now lives on Saint Paul Island, Alaska. "But the canoe journey only happens once a year, and we've got 12 months of problems. We needed to keep it going all year round."
Working with researchers at the University of Washington and a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the Suquamish have spent the past three years developing a life-skills curriculum modeled on the canoe journey. The manual teaches communication skills, goal setting, and how to lead mentally and physically healthy lives by weaving in traditional Suquamish stories and cultural values. Kids like Ashley and Lauren learn more than beading; they build drums, identify native medicine plants, and learn the Lashootsee language and traditional storytelling. Each youth also chooses a mentor to help guide her through the rough waters of life.
Before federal and state agencies agree to fund other tribes to adapt the Suquamish framework for developing life-skills programs, the curriculum will need to be scientifically proven effective. Last July, the National Institutes of Health gave the Suquamish and the University of Washington another five years of funding to empirically evaluate it. While it's too soon to know whether the program achieves its desired outcomes -- supporting Native teens' sobriety, confidence and cultural identity -- the academics and tribes involved put great stock in its unique formulation.
"In the past, we saw a lot of helicopter research where researchers would drop in, gather data and leave, never to be heard of again, without taking the time to understand the community or their specific values and traditions," says Lisa Rey Thomas, a scientist at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. "In this case, we're here to partner with the tribes for the sake of what they think will bring the most benefit."
The Tulalip Reservation nestles on a purse-shaped bay, about a daylong paddle across Puget Sound from Agate Passage. The Tulalip and a half-dozen other Northwest tribes have adapted the Suquamish's Healing of the Canoe curriculum to reflect their own specific stories and artwork.
"This isn't just for Northwest tribes," says June LaMar, a psychologist who helped write both the original manual and adapt it for the Tulalip. "All tribes have stories around journeys that can be adapted. Some, like the Sioux, have horseback journeys. My tribe in California is a high-desert people, and we took annual journeys to the mountains to find food and water to sustain us through the winter. We can fit this framework for other people; we just need to know their stories."
In the meantime, Portland's One Sky Center has posted the various class materials on its Web site in hopes that the framework will be adapted by other tribes throughout the West.
"If we don't learn our culture and values and incorporate them into our life, we won't be a tribe anymore," LaMar says. "That's what this is about. We have to make sure we don't lose that because it's who we are."
Native drums and chanting spill out the door of a trailer not far from LaMar's office on the Tulalip. Inside, people gather to prepare for this summer's upcoming canoe journey: An older woman sits at a sewing machine, adults cut vests and dresses from red and black cloth, while a handful of teens and younger kids sort through stencils and hold out their arms to be measured. Shaula, 13, did the life-skills course after school two years ago. Today, she's cutting red fabric for the regalia she'll wear to dance and sing during this summer's journey. Self-assured, she says that even though a lot of kids at her school -- the one off the reservation in Marysville -- smoke pot and take pills, she has no interest in such things.
"It's a thing of pride to be able to say you're drug and alcohol free," says Shaula, as she considers whether to use a sun or hummingbird symbol to decorate her dress. An enrolled member of both the Tulalip and Suquamish tribes, she spends a lot of time after school practicing her dance steps for the ceremonies and training for the long hours she'll spend paddling a canoe later this summer. "When you're involved in cultural activities, you're connected to something bigger than yourself, and it helps somehow. I mean, when you're putting your heart and soul into something, why would you want to mess it up?"
Rebecca Clarren, a former HCN associate editor, is a 2009 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.