(The Spirit of Our Grandmother’s Canoe Family)

by Xwu’p’a’lich Barbara Higgins

Each year in the early spring, just as my Ancestors did long ago, my canoe group performs a canoe blessing ceremony for my canoe and oft-times for the canoes of SD46, and the Gibsons Canoe Club, which are always welcome. This year there was only my canoe group, S-YEWEN-IHEMS-SILA (The Spirit of Our Grandmothers) Canoe Family.

Why do we do a blessing ceremony? Because we believe that our canoes are alive and that they choose their pullers or paddlers. So, it is important for this group of people to get together and become familiar with each other.

As part of the Blessing Ceremony, Holly Ann and I needed an armful of freshly cut cedar for washing the canoe, and for brushing people down. Everyone taking part in the ceremony must be brushed down first – so that we will all be on the same page, and things will run smoothly.

Don’t groan, because being brushed down is so much simpler than the way it was done when I was a kid. In the 1930s the whole village would wade into the ocean. Women would tuck their skirts up under their underwear before wading into the cold water. If they had small children or babies, they brought them with them and washed them in the cold ocean water as well. The women washed every inch of their exposed skin, and they took the salt water into their mouths and gargled – some of them allowing a teaspoon full of seawater to dribble down their throats. The men took off their shirts, shoes, socks, and rolled up their pant legs. Why did they do this? Words and actions have little meaning unless they are followed with some sort of sacrifice. The cold water bath was their sacrifice, and so they all had their brainwaves and bodies in sync with the ceremony taking place. Everyone’s mind was concentrated on the ceremony. That is why we brush you down with cedar before we begin the ritualistic canoe ceremony.

After the paddlers were brushed down, we brushed down the canoe. Four small buckets of water were held by four men, holding them at the four compass points: East (where the canoe pointed), South, West and North. Then the women used cedar branches to wash the canoe.

I was grateful to remember Rusty and Diane Ashworth, who gave me the Grandmother canoe in 2009. The blessing ceremony is how the Coast Salish peoples launched the paddling season each year, and my group is proud to carry on this tradition.