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Originally published July 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 8, 2007 at 11:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / The Democracy Papers

The pull of history and healing

Two faint lines of movement across Beaver Harbour were my introduction to a journey described as "traveling the traditional highways of...

PORT HARDY, B.C. — Two faint lines of movement across Beaver Harbour were my introduction to a journey described as "traveling the traditional highways of our ancestors."

A glorious and grueling physical test — and cultural extravaganza — called Paddle to Lummi 2007 is days away from a raucous finish in Bellingham.

This annual intertribal canoe journey, with a rotating host and destination, ends Monday with a gathering of tribes and bands from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia and, perhaps, 80 canoes.

As soon as the exhausted, exhilarated pullers are safely ashore, the Lummi Nation will welcome thousands to a festive revival of the potlatch tradition and five days of celebration, including a wedding.

Imagine a reunion for a very large, extended family.

By turn, I do not know which impresses me more, canoe passages covering hundreds of miles for some, or the daunting organizational feat to pull it all off. Both are humbling commitments and marvelous achievements.

Mostly I've wondered how brothers and canoe captains Dorey and James Brotchie and their crews have weathered the long haul south from Fort Rupert, B.C. We met hours after the canoes first got wet near Port Hardy, at the top of Vancouver Island.

With my feet comfortably propped on a log on a sandy crescent of beach, I was perfectly placed to follow the progress of the long canoes. A boisterous welcome of chants and drumming on the far shore got me into the car.

An earlier drive through the home of the Kwakiutl band had not revealed a thing. Returning, the streets were mostly empty but several people pointed to U'gwamalis Hall and insisted we pull open the big doors and go inside.

For a former acolyte, the chanting had the feel of a concluding prayer, and sacred smoke came not from a thurible, but a large open fire in the middle of a great room surrounded by banks of seats. Cedar scents nipped at the nose and ascended toward a cupola. Four enormous totem poles supported gigantic crossbeams that held up the roof. Grand hall or cathedral, it was fit for both.

In short order I met the Brotchie brothers; Dorey's canoe, which he had carved, had been blessed the day before. Robert Hakim, of the Lummi Tribe, was stocked and ready to cook on the support boat skippered by Ralph Neher, of the Bellingham Sea Scouts.

One leg of the journey was supposed to have started days earlier in Bella Coola, B.C., the home of the Coast Salish Nuxalk on the mainland. No escort boat was available until Neher volunteered and met the canoes in Port Hardy for the inaugural paddle to nearby Fort Rupert.

Safety is a preoccupation for all. Dubious weather and nasty winds, tides and currents, local hazards and inexperienced canoe pullers complicate a physically demanding voyage. Last year, a tribal chief from Gold River on Vancouver Island died off Dungeness Spit when a canoe capsized in cold, rough water.

As nosy interlopers, we thought it best to decline a gracious invitation to join a community dinner. Enough intruding on a special time. But I have thought about and respected the tough daily grind of those canoes every day since.

For the tribes, the journey is as much about history, dignity and renewal as it is the physical challenge of propelling canoes through the water.

So much is caught up in this effort. A repeated theme is the drug-and-alcohol-free nature of the entire event. Clean and sober is an example being set, a value being nurtured. The right to navigate international waters and move across borders is undeniably asserted. The strengthening of bonds between people separated by time, treaties and geography is huge. Add in a deep longing for a cultural renaissance among young people.

The Lummis have planned their celebration for at least three years. Committee Chairman James "Smitty" Hillaire first extended the invitation. The budget hovers around $1 million. As Paddle to Lummi director Frankie Lane points out, everyone does it differently. Next year, the journey ends in Cowichan, B.C.

The Paddle to Lummi motto emphasizes hope, happiness, healing, honor and hospitality. Beth Brownfield chairs a community-connections committee, which tapped into that spirit throughout Whatcom County. Everything from an embracing proclamation by local governments to generous donations of cash, goods and services resulted.

Twelve days ago, I saw two canoes hugging the waterline. I was amazed to learn how much they carried.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is seattletimes.com">ldickie@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

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