Underscore News

Twenty years ago, Wayne G. Kaajéisyoodzi.aakh Price had a vision.

Hunched inside a sweat lodge, he heard the voice of the creator, telling him to make a healing dugout canoe and a healing totem.

“What can I do?” he asked the creator. “I’m just a carver. I’ve made dugouts and totems, but how do you make a healing one?”

The creator told him each chip that flakes off a healing dugout represents a life lost to alcohol and drugs. Price was dealing with his own personal recovery at the time of his vision.

Fast forward to 2023, and Price has made five healing dugouts and six healing totems.

Price is a Yaakw builder, Tlingit master carver, member of the Wooshkeetaan clan, and a professor of Northwest Coast Arts for the University of Alaska Southeast. He is known as a fire starter – someone who sparks healing and ensures the continuation of ancestral practices.

“I start the fire of recovery and I will continue to do that all my breathing days on this earth,” Price said.

Wayne Price, a master carver and skipper for the North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan, dreamed of participating in canoe journey for two decades. He has carved 15 dugout canoes. “The ancestors designed a wonderful craft,” Price said. “All I did was try to match what was done for thousands of years.” (Photo by Carrie Johnson / Underscore News)

‘If I'm gonna do this, I better do it soon’

On July 30, Price and his canoe family, North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan, arrived with the incoming tide on the shores of Alki Beach. It was the destination of a 1,500-mile journey. From Haines, Alaska, the canoe family drove to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, took a ferry to Vancouver Island, and from Ladysmith, British Columbia, paddled 180 miles.

On the mast was an orange flag with two feathers intertwined and bold letters reading “Every Child Matters.” The flag represents a movement that seeks justice for Native people who experienced religious oppression and victimization in boarding schools.

North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan made the journey in Jibba Duggie, a 28-foot canoe crafted from a western red cedar and the first healing dugout Price ever made. The dugout is named in honor of Price’s wife’s son, Jeremy, who passed away at age 20 due to complications from cerebral palsy when Price began carving the dugout in 2003.

Price had yearned to participate in a canoe journey for over 20 years, but he was unable to complete the ancestral journey before now.

“I reached a time in my life where I said, if I'm gonna do this, I better do it soon,” Price said.

The slogan “Every Child Matters” refers to Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, or National Day of Remembrance, which honors Indigenous people forced to attend boarding schools and takes place on September 30th every year. The color was inspired by Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, who wore the orange shirt her grandmother gave her when she arrived at a religious boarding school. Officials immediately took the shirt. (Photo by Carrie Johnson / Underscore News)

‘We got spiritually stronger together’

This journey was also a first for Skaydu Û Jules from the Eagle Killer Whale Clan of Teslin Tlingit people in southern Yukon, first mate and spokesperson for the North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan. She has also been Price’s apprentice for the past two years.“We stand with those children,” Jules said, “calling forth all Indigenous peoples ancestors.”

To honor them, North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan left open a seat in the dugout for those who were lost in residential schools. Those who will never be able to make the journey.

Painted across Jules’ face and the faces of other pullers in the canoe was a red handprint, fingers and palms splayed across cheeks, noses, and mouths – a symbol for the movement to bring awareness to the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.

“I know I've been affected by it, and many people in our community,” Jules said. “Just being an Indigenous woman around Turtle Island is not always the safest and so a lot of our women have been murdered, gone missing, or something has happened to them, like sexual violence,” Jules said.

Jules was one of the first to commit to making the canoe journey. Jibba Duggie could hold six people, but the canoe family started with only two women and Price.

“In the beginning, we did our best,” Jules said. “That’s all we could do. Fighting winds with three pullers and just a skipper. We were less than half of what our dugout holds but place to place, we got stronger, our muscles got less sore, our endurance built up, and we got spiritually stronger together.”

After a Facebook post, and traveling from place to place, their team grew to six before arriving at Muckleshoot, 1,500 miles later.

“It just so happened, it was women that kept wanting to join us,” Jules said.

This year was the first time that Skaydu Û Jules pulled in the canoe journey. She says one of her favorite memories from the 1,500-mile trip was connecting with relatives from all walks of life. “You could see porpoises out there and seals popping their heads out, looking at us, and we swore that when we were singing they would come out and they would watch us.” (Photo by Carrie Johnson / Underscore News)

One woman who joined was Noelani Kanuha Auguston, Kanaka Maoli and a member of the Shxhwa:y Village of the Stol:o Nation. She is a screenwriter, producer, and director with Children of the Setting Sun Productions.

Kanuha Auguston participated in the canoe journey in 2016, but didn’t feel she could take time off work to paddle this year. Still, when North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan landed in Port Townsend, Washington, the call of the water became too great.

“It was this feeling of, ‘If I don’t get on the canoe this year, it’s not going to be good for me,’” Kanuha Auguston said.

Paddling the last three legs with her new canoe family made almost entirely of women, besides Price, Kanuha Auguston found empowerment and peace.

“It’s all about connection,” Kanuha Auguston said. “Connection to the water, the elements, the wind, the tides, the stars, the sun. And just using that energy in the right way to challenge your bodily limits to keep padding.”

The songs and prayers shared by the 120 families who participated in the 2023 Paddle to Muckleshoot Canoe Journey are dedicated to relatives, members of the community and ancestors, falling perfectly into place with this year’s theme: “Honoring our Warriors Past and Present.”

Noelani Kanuha Auguston joined North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan when the family had just three legs left. Kanuha Auguston is wearing a “tl’ítl’eptel,” or skirt. It is made out of contemporary alpaca wool, although traditionally her tribe would use mountain goat fur or, before they went extinct, Salish woolly dog fur. “I raise my hands to the skipper and to the crew who let me come aboard with them after they had journeyed so far already,” Kanuha Auguston said. “I just feel empowered by their strength and by their stories and I feel like to go through something like this connects you in the deepest way you can imagine.” (Photo by Carrie Johnson / Underscore News)

‘An honor that I'll carry with me for all time'

Sarah Boyles-Muehleck, who is non-Indigenous, grew up on Coast Miwok land in California. Boyles-Muehleck has also been an apprentice for Price since meeting him in 2021. Price, Jules and Boyles-Muehleck worked together in Angoon, Alaska this past April, on another medicine dugout – that community’s first in 140 years, since the U.S. Navy destroyed Angoon’s canoe fleet in 1882.

About 6 months ago, Boyles-Muehleck received a text from Price inviting her to join the canoe journey.

Boyles-Muehleck, a medical student, said that when she received the text from Price to join on this canoe journey, she began crying. She missed carving, she missed dugouts, and she missed paddling. In order to be a puller, Boyles-Muehleck said she had to fight her school about getting time away, but she knew how important it was.

“My favorite times on the water were when Patricia Chookenshaa Allen, or Skaydu Û, or anyone shared traditional songs, and we would just sing together and that really aligned all of our spirits and all of our bodies in moving forward with the water. It’s hard to articulate the feeling, but it’s one that whenever I close my eyes I go back to now.”

Boyles-Muehleck also found her own peace on this journey, surrounded by the water and women. She said she treasured the feeling of being on the canoe with other women.

“The way your voices sync during songs, the conversations that you feel comfortable having, and the lack of explaining you need to do,” she said. “There are things you don’t have to say, or explain, that are just understood.”

The meaningful relationship she has with Price is obvious in the tender but teasing way she converses with him. She says gratitude is one of the main things she feels about participating.

Sarah Boyles-Muehleck grew up in a Native community, but is not Indigenous. She was one of the first people Wayne Price asked to join the journey as a puller. “It's hard not to be dwelling on how my people tried to take that all away for so long and continue to try to take it away in so many different ways,” Boyles-Muehleck said. “I just feel so strongly that this is how people are meant to live as a community and in love with one another's communities and cultures.” (Photo by Carrie Johnson / Underscore News)

The sense of gratitude for Price is shared among the family, because when the North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan hit the shores, the pullers told Price to stay in the dugout. The women felt Price had given them a unique opportunity, and the pullers had a gift in return.

It was the highest honor they could offer.

Like the spirits of the women uplifted by his mentorship, Price was lifted in return - when the canoe hit the beach, his feet never touched the sand. Price’s canoe family and volunteers physically lifted Jibba Duggie to carry the healing dugout and the master carver across the beach. Up in the air, Price spread his arms like he was embracing the moment – one he says he’ll never forget.

It was a journey 20 years in the making. Standing in the warm July sun, laughter, tears, the collective breath of accomplishment, and the fullness of healing were radiating off the North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan canoe family.

“That meant a lot to me for coming into Muckleshoot, that my feet didn't touch the beach,” Price said. “It's an honor that I'll carry with me for all time, that experience, and what a pleasant surprise. Such a special occasion.”

Lead image: This year was the first time that Skaydu Û Jules pulled in the canoe journey. She says one of her favorite memories from the 1,500-mile trip was connecting with relatives from all walks of life. “You could see porpoises out there and seals popping their heads out, looking at us, and we swore that when we were singing they would come out and they would watch us.” (Photo by Carrie Johnson / Underscore News)

Corrections: The North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan canoe family paddled 180 miles of the 1,500-mile journey the family made from Haines, Alaska to Alki Beach in Washington state. North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan did not paddle the entire way. Also, an earlier version of the story stated that Boyles-Muehleck met price last April, when she actually met him in 2021. Underscore regrets the errors.

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2023 Indigenous Journalism FellowCarrie Johnson is Chickasaw and Pawnee from southern Oklahoma. A senior at Austin College, she is double majoring in English and Media Studies. She has been a fellow for...