Posted by on Jan 18, 2018 in Featured

Lummi Youth Canoe Family, an Anchor for At-Risk Youth, Seeks Funds for New Zealand Trip by Frank Hopper

Lummi Youth Canoe Family, an Anchor for At-Risk Youth, Seeks Funds for New Zealand Trip by Frank Hopper

At the 2014 Paddle to Bella Bella, the kids in the Lummi Youth Canoe Family went out on the smokehouse floor looking a little nervous. The audience they faced in the little town on the north end of Vancouver Island was made up of Native canoe pullers from all over the world gathered to celebrate their completion of that year’s tribal canoe journey.

The Lummi youth, who had paddled 22 days to get there, didn’t know the song they were supposed to sing very well. They were a new canoe family and hadn’t emphasized learning their tribe’s songs as much as they should have. They hoped they wouldn’t have to sing, but a Maori puller from New Zealand told them they had to try.

Members of the Lummi Youth Canoe Family pause briefly during the 2017 Tribal Canoe Journey, Paddle to Campbell River. Photo by Heather Jefferson

So they sang. They sang the best they could and gave it all they had. They felt awkward and embarrassed, knowing they sang the song all wrong. They half-expected people to laugh at or boo them when they finished, but the response was something none of them anticipated: the Maori invited them to New Zealand.

Canoe Family History

The Lummi Youth Canoe Family began in 2011 as a youth organization called the Indian People’s Own Determination or IPOD. It was formed by Becky Kinley, Youth Leadership Manager & Social Marketing Coordinator for the Lummi Nation Behavioral Health Division.

“It was designed for youth between 13 and 21 to reconnect them with their culture,” Becky told me in a recent interview.

In 2013 Becky met Justin Finkbonner, a Program Coordinator for the Potlatch Fund and a leader within the Lummi community. Justin suggested they change the name of the group to the Lummi Youth Canoe Family. As he became actively involved in the group, he infused it with his own brand of infectious energy and enthusiasm.

“Justin had this mindset that we needed to market ourselves, we needed to write grants, we needed to… So we just started redeveloping IPOD into the Lummi Youth Canoe Family.”

Justin led the group in opposition to several environmental issues. In 2015 the canoe family spearheaded demonstrations on the waters of Puget Sound against the Shell Oil exploratory drilling platform Polar Pioneer, which was on its way to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic. Justin and the canoe family opposed arctic drilling and stormed the oil rig with an army of activists in kayaks right behind them. Justin shouted the rig was breaking the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott and must leave the area. Police patrol boats eventually blocked them from reaching the mammoth oil platform.

The late Justin Finkbonner, co-founder of the Lummi Youth Canoe Family, leads a coalition of Native canoe families and non-Native environmental “kayaktivists” as they oppose arctic drilling in 2015. The Shell exploratory drilling rig Polar Pioneer towers behind them in the waters of Seattle’s Elliott Bay as it prepares to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic.

Later that year the group was invited to a climate change conference in Paris. Members of the canoe family attended, joining other youth groups in sharing their stories of how climate change has damaged their cultures and regions.

Justin tragically passed away that same year. He had devoted himself to the Lummi Youth Canoe Family while he was alive, acting as skipper of their canoe, and also as their counselor, cheerleader and tireless organizer. He is sorely missed.

An Invitation from the Maori

Justin’s enthusiasm and can-do attitude was evident in 2014 at the Paddle to Bella Bella when the group sang in front of all the other canoe families, even though none of them knew the song. They weren’t going to sing at first, but a member of the Maori group came and told them they needed to.

“They were like, ‘Even if you screw up, no one’s going to know. You guys just gotta try,'” Becky told me. “They got put out on the smokehouse floor at the Fort Rupert smokehouse and they just started singing.”

Afterward, the Maori came up to them and, according to Becky, instead of being upset, they said, “You guys empower us because you’re trying even if you fail. And when you see reservation kids today and that’s all they have is the reservation, they get depressed, they do drugs and alcohol, they have dysfunctional families, they don’t really have a sense of connection. Then you guys try and you fall on your face and you get back up and you try and you fall on your face and sometimes you guys succeed. And that’s worth sharing.”

The Maori invited them that night to come to New Zealand to participate in the annual Waitangi Treaty Day festivities. Waitangi Day celebrates the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British crown and over 40 Maori chiefs. The festivities include the display and racing of traditional Maori canoes, some of which are over 100 feet long.

A Real Family for At-Risk Youth

Although the canoe family has had many memorable, even exciting, experiences, such as their dramatic invitation from the Maori, the main way it helps its members is by being there for them consistently.

“I originally started this group to help youth who were currently in the system, whether the judicial system, the foster care system and also some kids in the mental health system,” Becky explained.

One member of the group, Kyle Moses, now 18, told me he grew up in a family that didn’t love him because he was a boy.

“I was taken away from them because both my parents neglected me. More often than not, I wasn’t given food. And I was beaten by my dad. I’ve been in the foster care system for the past 14 or 15 years. The reason I like the canoe family is because it’s been consistent. It’s been the primary consistent thing in my life as opposed to any other foster family. So when I look at the canoe family, I look at it as a real family.”

Since joining, Kyle started learning discipline. He started learning the Lummi language. And he learned how to canoe pull. Most importantly, he learned the canoe family cares about him.

“And that’s significant when you’re working with someone in the foster care system,” Becky told me, “because they don’t really have a sense of belonging or a sense of cultural identity.”

Answering the Maori’s Invitation

The Lummi youth weren’t able to go to the Waitangi Day festivities in 2014, but they’re determined to make it this year and have been raising money for the trip for several months.

A link to the Lummi Youth Canoe Family gofundme account is provided here for anyone who wishes to contribute to the group’s planned trip to New Zealand, which will start on January 27. The group’s impressive achievements owe a lot to their determination to try, to fall on their face, and to get back up and try again. And this determination comes from a secret power: the group’s ability to care deeply about its members just as an ancestor would.

“I just think it’s a super spiritual thing,” Kyle told me. “Even though we don’t normally think of it in those terms, it is.”


Link for gofundme account:

By Frank Hopper