Emerging Evidence Case Study: The Canoe Journey

Background and Scope of Problem

Case Study Written by John Spence, MSW, Ph.D., Northwest Indian Training Associates, and Terry Cross MSW, LCSW, PhD, National Indian Child Welfare Association

The intertribal Canoe Journey is a traditional gathering of northwest tribes that has been resurrected with great enthusiasm during the past several years. This was initiated in 1989 by a Quinault tribal elder as the “Paddle to Seattle” (Seattle Post–Intelligencer, Aug. 1, 2006). Larger canoe tribes such as the Lummi, Makah, Nisqually, Puyallup, and Tulalip located on Puget Sound and several Canadian tribes around Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., have also been very active participants in reviving this cultural tradition. The 2017 Canoe Journey begins near the end of July, with participating tribes leaving at different dates to converge for “protocol” at Campbell River, B.C., in August.

An integral part of the Canoe Journey is the formation of Canoe Families within each tribe. A Canoe Family typically includes local tribal youth, their families and extended families, and other tribal and even nontribal community members. The Canoe Family typically meets year-round to participate in drug-free cultural events and fundraising to support the annual Canoe Journey. The annual journey itself is a strenuous and logistically challenging cultural event that recently has included nearly a hundred tribes in a year.


Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Canoe Family—first night at the Canoe Journey, July 2007

There is little quantitative evaluation data currently available in research literature related to the Canoe Journey. There is, however, an emerging view among many northwest tribes that this is a valid “cultural best practice” that should be accepted by state and federal funding agencies as an “evidence-based practice” (EBP).

Canoe Journey as a Prevention Intervention

A strong case for the Canoe Journey as an effective prevention and intervention tool for northwest tribal youth is a life skills curriculum developed by the Addictive Behaviors Research Center, Department of Psychology, University of Washington, titled Facilitator’s Manual: Canoe Journey—Life’s Journey: A Life Skills Manual for Native Adolescents (2003). 

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Canoe Family on the 10-day Canoe Journey's second day

Project Evaluation

A 3-month follow-up study of this canoe curriculum noted that “preliminary analyses suggests positive outcome trends” for 120 Native adolescents ages 13–19 (E. H. Hawkins et al.  (2004). Preventing substance abuse in American Indian and Alaskan Native youth: Promising strategies for healthier communities. Psychological Bulletin, 130(2), 304–323).

Lisa Thomas (Tlingit), the primary author of the Canoe Manual, has shared this 168-page document that contains sections related to youth depression, substance misuse (including methamphetamine, marijuana, steroids, and stimulants), tobacco, and suicide. It also included sections on help and support, goal setting, listening, coping, mentoring, and problem solving. Dr. Thomas has assisted in a 3-year research project at the Suquamish Tribe in Washington called “Healing of the Canoe.”

Tribal community members and staff often report that tribal youth and adult Canoe Family participants say this is their most highly valued cultural best practice for prevention and treatment programming.

Additional Information

For additional information about Canoe Journey, read 10 Canoe Rules as developed by the Quileute Tribe of Washington state in 1990.

Last Updated: 06/22/2017