The Salish Sea is not for amateurs. Photos by Matika Wilbur

"Seattle—I always say it's the epicenter of the Indian movement right now," says Caleb Dunlap. "I can't remember where I heard that. Maybe it was just inside of me. But it said, 'Go to Seattle if you want to be part of change in what we call Indian Country.'"

It's Friday, August 2, 2013, and Dunlap is sitting on the bumper of a red pickup truck parked on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He's Ojibwe, of the Minnesota Chippewa, but today he's in Quinault country, in the town of Taholah in Grays County, 150 miles west of Seattle. He moved to Seattle last year from Los Angeles, and he manages the programs at the Chief Seattle Club downtown. Dunlap dresses preppy. He wears stylish eyeglasses. He's queer and out. All these same traits apply to his twin brother—they jokingly refer to themselves as the Nerdy Natives. They're two of the thousands of people who have pitched tents on this cliff and in these forests for the first week of August. All these people are here to celebrate the endurance of the tribes the American government has tried to kill.

"The change," Caleb explains, "is to acknowledge that we are a people still."

I've come not knowing what I'm getting into. I'm ostensibly following Matika Wilbur, an artist of Swinomish and Tulalip descent who has shown at Seattle Art Museum, among other places. She recently gave a TEDx talk about her crowdfunded Project 562: her solo journey visiting and photographing all of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. This has included, among many other adventures into Native America, a trip by Natives-only helicopter to visit the Havasupai on a remote outcropping in the Grand Canyon. (Tourists are forbidden to take photographs of the Havasupai people.) Wilbur deserves, and will soon get, her own story in this newspaper. But through her, I witnessed an entire world that rises up every summer in the form of the Tribal Canoe Journey. If you are not Native, this display is not for you. This is not a tourist event. But if you are a respectful guest, you'll be honored and welcomed no matter who you are—even if you have no idea what you're about to see.

This is the biggest event of the local Native year. If you had visited every reservation between Vancouver Island and Olympia during the first week of August, you'd basically have found them empty: Folks were in Quinault. Each year, a different tribe hosts the journey. And each year, the journey—a variant on ancient traditions, revived in 1989—grows bigger. This year, there were nearly 100 canoes pulled by representatives from more than 75 tribes. Almost all the tribes are from the Salish Sea, but some came from as far away as Hawaii, New Zealand, and New York. An estimated 10,000 people celebrated.

Golf carts and shuttle school buses ran up and down between the coast towns of Ocean Shores and Moclips and Seabrook to bring guests. The gas station in Kurt Cobain's hometown of Aberdeen was so unprepared for the onslaught of travelers that by Friday night, when the celebration wasn't even halfway through, the regular-grade gas had already run out. You had to buy premium if you wanted gas. Likewise, the staff of the little visitors' center for the Olympic National Forest in the town of Quinault—which is not, incidentally, where the reservation is located—was bewildered. "People just keep asking me where the canoe journey is, and I don't really know," says the older white woman working the desk. "I think it's in Taholah. At least that's what I heard, and I keep sending people there, and nobody's coming back."

I arrive on the Thursday afternoon the canoes are scheduled to land. They were supposed to come in at 11 a.m., but the waters were so choppy that they were turned away, some capsizing. It's a dangerous journey. The Salish Sea is not for amateurs. In 2006, a hereditary chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht tribe of Vancouver Island drowned and three people had to be hurried to the hospital when their canoe capsized in a storm west of Dungeness Spit during the journey. "Look at each leg of the journey as a journey in itself," warned this year's tip sheet for canoe families, as the teams are called. It's easy to get thirsty, sunburned, hungry, cold, and separated from your support boat. "A good rule to follow is to plan on being out 18 hours with only what you carry."

The canoe landing at Quinault could not have been more gorgeous. "Just look at our rez," a Quinault spokesman says. The beach is a long curve of stark, fog-coated shore shielded entirely by the high cliffs topped by green forest. Out among the breaking waves, monumental rocks hold their ground. The water stretches to the horizon line. Nothing besides nature is visible—usually. This is private land. No one is allowed here without express permission from the Quinault. On this particular Thursday, though, there's a crush of car and foot traffic on the beach.

Sometime in the late afternoon, the canoes begin coming in off the open water, escorted by two big old European-based ships meant to signify cooperation. Each canoe emerges from the fog like a spaceship reentering the atmosphere, passes by the tall ships, and approaches the beach, where a row of young female dancers wearing red and black regalia prepares the way. The travelers stop before they get to shore. One representative comes onto the beach to request permission to come ashore. Over a booming loudspeaker that sends the words all the way up into the trees on the cliffs, the words of response are given: "Welcome ashore. Welcome to the Great Quinault Nation." At this, the rest of the team steps out of the wooden canoe as one synchronized force. They bend down, hoist the canoe over their heads, and walk onto the land.

This is their final destination, and here they'll celebrate for five days straight, all through the nights and days, with breaks only for breakfasts and dinners provided by the Quinault. Lunches will be delivered in brown bags handed out to the assembled crowd inside the performance, or "protocol," tent, and all the elders will receive their lunch bags before anyone else is offered anything. Throughout the ceremonies, Wilbur will continuously ask her mother, her aunties, and any other women and men older than her whether they want a blanket, or some water, or a meal. Respect for elders happens simply and ubiquitously here.

"Protocol isn't going to start tonight," somebody says, and everybody begins passing around the word. Because the canoes had to arrive late, protocol will start Friday morning, after everyone has had one good night of rest. When Friday morning comes, hundreds and hundreds of people file into the white tent that's large enough to house a football field, and the dancing, drumming, singing, and storytelling begin. This tent is situated right next to another identical tent with endless rows inside it of white-plastic-covered tables for eating—hot breakfasts with eggs and fruit and breads, and feast dinners with crab and chicken and ribs and corn on the cob. These meals are free of charge for every comer.

I cannot pretend to have understood what I witnessed in those hours and hours of singing, dancing, and drumming. I was invited to dance by an old woman in a long braid and dress who grabbed my hand and held me through the whole dance. The elders sitting on the floor closest to the stage area shared stories with me that are sacred in their horror: of Joe Washington, a Lummi boy who was sent to a white boarding school and forbidden to speak Salish but who couldn't speak anything else. He was punished for his muteness by having his tongue pressed to a frozen pole and the flesh of it torn off, and then he was sent home anyway. He stopped speaking at all for years. "So when they say, 'Oh, you don't speak your language?' I go, 'No, my grandmother was too afraid to teach it to her son that he would be punished, so excuse me that I don't speak my language.'"

That's the voice of Nancy Wilbur, Matika's mother, whose life is a book waiting to be written. She marched as part of the American Indian Movement (one of the founder's teenage sons is here, sitting next to her), and she participated in the successful occupation of Discovery Park in Seattle in 1970. She was a Native history and culture college professor, then a lobbyist in Olympia. Her tribe, Swinomish, is 800 or 900 people today, on a reservation of five by seven miles in the Skagit Valley. She remembers a sign on a tavern in La Conner: "No dogs or Indians allowed."

The elders on the sidelines gave gifts freely. After I accidentally insulted another of Matika's relatives, Heather Gobin, by sitting down on a hand-woven cedar headpiece that she'd made and that I didn't see there, a few hours later she handed me a cedar rose. She'd woven it by hand; she is known as a master weaver. Her son, who couldn't have been more than 15 years old, was sitting behind us. He tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a tiny, perfect version of the same rose that he'd twisted together in his lap. He hadn't said anything to me up until then, but he witnessed the whole thing. When his mother was leaning away, he said to me, "Hold on to these as long as you can. They are special."

Down on the beach, the tide comes up so high that it's a gamble to car-camp even right up against the cliff, so when night falls, I find myself running across the beach in driving rain to rescue my minivan before it washes away. As I'm running, I have a mental picture of the van riding out into the water, this dumb-looking machine bobbing off, taking some of the unwanted conditions of my life with it. I think of another vessel, too: the Spanish boat that arrived here in 1775, carrying the first documented foreigners into what was later called Washington State. Rather than lose the van, I move it up to the cliff and sleep in it that night, and in the morning I return to the beach on foot. The Quinault allow me to dunk my naked self into this 50-degree water for as long as I can stand, which is not very long at all, and then I drive the van back to Seattle. recommended