The sound of 1,000 handcrafted paddles being beaten in rhythm in the bottoms of more than 100 canoes echoed across Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island Monday evening as the boats were drawn to shore in the shadow of Mt. Tzouhalem, the sacred mountain of the Quw’utsum peoples.
“Welcome our relatives from the south, from Puget Sound,” called out Cowichan Chief Lydia Huwitsin. “Welcome our relatives from the west. From the east, from the north.”
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The canoes were part of the largest Tribal Journeys paddle in modern times. Begun in 1989, the event commemorates the paddles of old, before first contact and before arbitrary political boundaries, when members of coastal First Nations travelled unfathomable distances in open boats to trade, visit, or sometimes, wage war.
“A time when such voyages were easier,” said Chief Huwitsin, surrounded by elders and dancers, through a very up-to-date public address system to several thousand men, women and children gathered on the banks of a modern lumber terminal to welcome the oceangoing vessels.
The first to ask permission to come ashore was Coast Salish master carver Carey Newman, 32, designer of the Cowichan Spirit Pole.
A spectacle not seen on Vancouver Island for at least a century brought thousands of spectators pouring into Cowichan Bay.
To drumbeats, cheers, traditional songs — and emotional displays from those lining the shore — 106 ocean-going canoes glided into the bay for the conclusion of Tribal Journeys 2008.
The three-metre-long western red cedar story pole had been transported to 51 B.C. communities over 95 days. More than 10,000 people helped carve Newman’s design, which begins with a frog at the bottom, then four salmon swimming in a river, with a wolf above, and finally topped by an eagle with folded wings.
The full story of the pole will be revealed Sunday at the opening ceremonies of the North American Indigenous Games being held on Cowichan territory in nearby Duncan, B.C.
“I think of the woman who carved on her 100th birthday, of the mothers carving for their unborn children, of the thousands who helped carve it into a story,” said Newman.
The log is a gift from the Squamish First Nation, which salvaged it from Vancouver’s Stanley Park after a devastating storm several years ago.
Newman had to wipe tears away as he reminisced about the 95 days the pole spent on the road.
“This pole is called Victory of Spirit, and I feel like this tour was a victory of the spirits,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the nearby beach, canoe after canoe continued to arrive from all points of the compass.