At Celebration, waiting has a sound — of drums, of voices raised in songs of welcome. The crowd is scanning the horizon. And one grandmother, Marie Johnson, is looking extra closely for the tip of a red canoe carrying her grandson. His name is Roary Earl Bennett. He’s 10 years old from Craig, and he’s making the journey with his grandfather.
The arrival of the One People Canoe Society Wednesday unofficially kicks off Celebration. A crowd of more than 300 people clustered at Douglas Harbor awaiting the flotilla’s arrival.
Roary was invited by his grandfather Bill Bennett to join the Coghlan Island-to-Douglas portion of the journey. That’s a three-day trip. Johnson said she was washing dishes when her grandson broke the news.
“He talked about it but I never knew if he was serious, you know? … He finally came to me and told me, ‘Grandma, you better start making my tunic.’ I said, ‘Oh you’re going to dance.’ He said, ‘I’m going to ride the canoe.’”
Roary even made his own paddle at a workshop with Doug Chilton, a Tlingit master carver. The paddle has his grandfather’s killer whale crest on it.
Johnson made Roary’s tunic in two weeks, using felt and abalone shells. She put a beaded eagle on the front and a killer whale on the back, both family crests.
“We didn’t even measure it,” Johnson said. “It fit him perfect. It was just like his year.”
The journey, organized by the One People Canoe Society, has only grown bigger over the past decade. Waiting to greet them was Paul Marks, council member with the Douglas Indian Association. This land used to be the Douglas Indian Village, so his permission is key if the canoe parties want to come ashore.
“The importance is making sure you do the right things and say the right things,” Marks said. “If you don’t, it could cause misfortune, and some of the things the young people do (is) because of enthusiasm. They want to be culturally oriented, but a lot time they really don’t know what to do or say.”
So elders like Marks are more than leaders. They are teachers, demonstrating at the shore’s edge how to arrive and how to receive.
As the first canoe is spotted rounding the breakwater, the crowd cries out. There are 10 canoes; they came from Ketchikan, Sitka, Kake, Angoon, Hoonah and Yakutat, and two other canoes are designated for war veterans. Each one has a safety boat.
Rowers chant “Hoo haa!” as they approach the shore. There are more than 100 people aboard the canoes in regalia, their paddles pointed towards the sky. They raft up and at the edge of the water, Marks joins Fran Houston representing the Aakʼw Ḵwáan.
“Welcome, to Auk country,” Houston said. “We are so happy that you made it here safely.”
The exchange is one of respect, welcome and thanks.
The shores were pretty squishy with mud. I made my way over to Marie Johnson, who was taking pictures of her grandson from afar with her cell phone.
“Oh, I’m so proud of him. Ooo!”
Joined by family from Kake, we wandered over to the harbor ramp.
“Oh there he is!” Johnson said.
We spot Roary. He’s totally adorable, with green braces on his top teeth.
“Um … I’m feeling kind of tired, because I’ve been paddling a lot,” he said. “And since I’m a kid I get to take long breaks on the canoe. And it’s kind of an honor because not a lot of people get to go on there.
Roary told me he was in a boat accident once, but now feels safe traveling by canoe. His top snacks on the trip? Chex Mix, jerky and candy. The journey in three words? Sleepy, hard working and fun.
I ask him how the experience has changed him.
“I feel that my ancestors felt tired a lot … and I bet they got used to it though because they had to paddle every day to catch fish and salmon,” he said.
For someone who stepped into the shoes of his ancestors in a way that most 10-year-olds don’t, Roary is matter of fact. I ask him, “How did they push through? How did you push through?”
With the shrug, he said, “Just keep going. Take little breaks. And keep going.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified who helped Roary Earl Bennett carve his paddle. The carver who helped him was Doug Chilton, not Wayne Price. Also, Bennett is from Craig, not Kake.