Drug Use Down, Hope Up: A Canoe Journey Inspires Native Youth

Reversing the trauma of assimilation isn’t easy, but tribes believe that bringing ancestral values directly to the youth is the answer.
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Vincent and Sequoia Chargualaf stand on the rocky shore of Port Madison Bay, Washington, welcoming canoe paddlers as their Suquamish ancestors had done for generations. In honor of that history, today’s Pacific Northwest Natives climb in their canoes and paddle for the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, a drug- and alcohol- free event where tribes gather and share their cultures. This year, the Suquamish are hosting visitors for a night, welcoming them with a steady drumbeat and a hint of steaming crab in the air. 

The canoe journey represents adaptability and reliability, traits necessary inside and outside of the canoe, especially for the many Native youth who struggle with substance abuse. Twenty-year-old Vincent learned these lessons five years ago when he took a class that included the journey’s metaphorical teachings. The class was part of the Healing of the Canoe project, a collaboration between the Suquamish Tribe, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, and the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. It aims to build resilient, substance-free Native youth by reconnecting them to their roots.

“You never know what’s going to come up when you’re on the journey,” Vincent says. “There’s going to be times when you’re in the canoe and there’s rough waves or calm water. You just have to be able to adapt to any situation you’re put in, and you have to be able to do it with the help of everyone else.”

Vincent and Sequoia Chargualaf, at right, wait on the shore for arriving canoes from neighboring tribes.

YES! photo by Paul Dunn

Vincent and 16-year-old Sequoia both learned through the class how to apply this philosophy to life. The Healing of the Canoe’s yearlong curriculum is broken up into 11 sessions. Each teaches different cultural values and life skills, while sprinkling in drug and alcohol information. At the end of the year, students participate in an honoring ceremony that acknowledges their accomplishments.

The project has expanded to about 35 tribes—some as far as Canada and Alaska—that learn implementation through workshops, social media, and online trainings. Tribal members hope such involvement will deter youth from experimenting with drugs, a health issue especially prevalent among Native adolescents. A study recently published in Public Health Reports found that 56 percent of eighth graders in American Indian populations surveyed used marijuana—four times higher than the national rate. Use of psychedelics was five times higher. 

Drugs take over youth’s lives, says Laura Price, the Healing of the Canoe project manager for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. “They change the child, and that’s really scary.” 

This didn’t just happen. For decades, the U.S. government forced Native people to assimilate into American society. The trauma of this cultural stripping continues to bleed into today’s generations, encouraging destructive behavior, hurting health, and contributing to mental illness. Reversing that trauma isn’t easy, but tribes believe that bringing ancestral values directly to the youth is the answer.

“It’s OK to feel weak sometimes. It’s OK to not be the strongest person in the world.”

A study of the Healing of the Canoe’s impact, published in early 2015, showed substance use decreased, while hope, optimism, and self-efficacy increased among the 27 participants. Tribal members involved in the study requested these variables be examined, and results were garnered from a questionnaire given before and after the curriculum. The project’s goal is not only to reduce harm among youth, Price says, but also to get them “feeling good and proud about who they are and where they come from.”

Take the Chargualaf brothers, Vincent and Sequoia, for example. They explain how their single mother never had time to bring their family to cultural events that were often too far out of the way. The Healing of the Canoe project brought the cultural teachings to them—teachings that encouraged the brothers to go beyond class requirements and paddle in the annual canoe journey.

In the class, Vincent learned how to sing, dance, and weave. “I’m not so much a carver,” he says, “but whatever anybody needs help with, that’s just where I am.” 

Sequoia was crowned as last year’s Chief Seattle Days Warrior in the Royalty Pageant, part of a three-day public festival established in 1911 to honor the famous Suquamish leader, Chief Seattle. Royalty give a voice to youth and represent their significant role within the tribe. Sequoia has found honor standing among leaders. “If I’m next to the right people, and good people,” he says, “then I can help others stay drug and alcohol free.” Plus, tribal stories tell of bad karma catching up to royalty who use substances. He doesn’t want any future bad luck.

Real life is as unpredictable as the canoe journey, but a strong community can provide the support to pull through hardships like addiction. “Healing of the Canoe is just teaching us it’s OK to ask for help,” Vincent explains. “It’s OK to feel weak sometimes. It’s OK to not be the strongest person in the world.”

Strength comes in many forms. For some, it’s paddling 24 hours in a canoe. For others, it’s carrying that canoe to shore. For the Suquamish, it’s all of the above, plus finding the answers that will keep their kids well and their culture alive.