In March WILDCOAST joined forces with Native Like Water (a program operated by InterTribal Youth) and the San Diego Maritime Museum to embark on a journey of marine research, exploration, and healing for Indigenous youth.  WILDCOAST aims to help re-establish the Indigenous connection to the San Diego County coastline and reconnect the first people of San Diego County with their ocean places. Through our March trip with Native Like Water and our ongoing Explore My MPAs programming with other local Indigenous communities, WILDCOAST facilitates coastal stewardship, provides real world training in scientific methods and creates opportunity for healthy outdoor engagement.

The trip took place aboard the San Diego Maritime Museum’s Californian, the official tall ship of the State of California. The Californian is a replica of the Revenue Cutter C.W. Lawrence, a patrol vessel which enforced federal law along the California coast during the gold rush. The Californian represents a dark period of history for many of California’s native communities, which faced unspeakable hardship and atrocities at the hands of gold rush-era settlers.

The overnight trip left San Diego Bay and sailed west while deckhands from the Maritime Museum introduced participants to the challenges of operating a dated wooden schooner. As we left the harbor we passed an incoming US Navy vessel that dwarfed our relatively small craft. The stark contrast in naval technology that represented 170 years of innovation left a quiet awe over our ship. It was a gentle reminder of the disconnect between the technological and social advancements made over the last century and a half.

Many of the youth in attendance live on, or have relatives that live on reservations; forced inland by European settlement and coastal colonization. The disconnect from ocean spaces and native coastal lands is frequently discussed among elders in the Southern California Indigenous communities, who are striving to create equitable coastal access and reconnect native youth with their ancestral lands. Native Like Water is one such program that prepares Indigenous youth and adult volunteers in science, outdoor education, conservation, wellness and cultural self-exploration.   

During our voyage students were trained by WILDCOAST in the use of emerging marine science technologies including digital microscopy and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs). Ecological principles and the importance of marine conservation were discussed in small group settings while dolphins cruised along the bow the old schooner.

At night students had the opportunity to learn about their cultural heritage from elders and students from neighboring tribal bands. Songs from representative communities were sung and taught from one student to the next while the Californian anchored for the night just outside of the mouth of the San Diego Harbor.

At the end of the trip the Californian returned to dock with the sound of cannon fire acknowledging a successful voyage. As the echoing boom carried across downtown San Diego, a surreal feeling fell over the ship as a group of strangers were brought together through mutual respect and appreciation for the unifying power of the ocean and the time spent together at sea.

We disembarked with ceremonial hugs and gifts of Native Like Water swag to mark our historic achievement. Strangers from dissimilar backgrounds who came together for a common goal of healing and to gain perspective from the ocean.

To see Native Like Water’s reflection on the experience, check out this article in Indian Voices.