ANACORTES — Two members of an indigenous group from northern Russia are being immersed in the tribal culture of the Samish Indian Nation.
Yulia Taleeva and Petr Ledkov, who are members of the Nenets indigenous group, on Monday joined a portion of the annual Canoe Journey during which coastal tribes from Washington and First Nations from British Columbia paddle from their traditional lands to a hosting tribe’s lands, according to the event website.
Wearing a borrowed life vest and carrying a wooden paddle, Taleeva climbed into the Samish Indian Nation’s canoe Monday afternoon, becoming for a day a member of the Samish Canoe Family.
Ledkov watched from the Fidalgo Bay shoreline, recording video as the wooden canoe slid into the water, with a white Mount Baker standing tall behind it against the clear blue sky.
“It’s very impressive to see so many boats come from so many places,” Ledkov said, speaking in Russian through an interpreter, while watching canoe families from area tribes say departing prayers and ask the Samish permission to traverse their traditional waters.
Taleeva said she had some experience paddling boats back home in Russia, though Monday marked her first time in a hollowed-out log canoe traditional to this region’s tribes.
“I like the idea that we will all be like one single body, so there’s unity, to synchronize your movements with others,” she said through an interpreter before departing.
The 24-year-old Taleeva and the 72-year-old Ledkov arrived in the Anacortes area July 16 with their guide Yan Turov. The three are scheduled to depart for their home of Naryan-Mar, Russia, at the end of the week.
Their visit is part of a cultural exchange the Samish and Nenets launched this year, using a U.S.-Russia Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program grant from the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Russia.
Three members of the Samish Indian Nation traveled to Naryan-Mar in April.
The participants said the idea is that through sharing each other’s cultures, each group may gain ideas for how to preserve their traditions, protect their natural resources and develop economic opportunities.
For the Nenets, that has meant hearing stories from a Samish elder, seeing a wetland restoration project and dining on seafood.
In Russia, Samish members Janet Castilleja, Kelly Hall and Toby McLeod toured the teepee-like structures in which the nomadic, reindeer herding Nenets live, ate a variety of reindeer meats and tried on the traditional Nenets garments of bright colored cloth and reindeer hides.
Taleeva and Ledkov said they were born into reindeer herding families and are now, as city dwellers, involved in preserving and sharing Nenets culture through theater, song, dance and involvement with nongovernmental groups.
Castilleja, Hall and McLeod said they are each involved in preserving Samish culture and ensuring the tribe thrives in the modern world: Hall is focused on the tribe’s native language, McLeod on natural resources and Castilleja on economic development.
Representatives of both indigenous groups said protecting the natural resources their cultures are tied to — from Arctic reindeer to Pacific salmon — is a challenge in the face of climate change. Preserving their languages and traditions is also a challenge, they said, following years of oppression and assimilation efforts.
Events such as Canoe Journey, when tribes or indigenous families come together to celebrate their culture, heritage and tradition, are also important to indigenous groups in northern Russia.
Each winter, the Nenets meet for reindeer races — a cultural holiday not unlike the canoe event, Ledkov said.
“The same spirit is there, bringing together very different people,” he said. “What you do on the water, we do the same on land.”