Tribe Struggles To Carve Out A Dream Shoalwaters’ Casino Plan Folded, Many Babies Died, And Bid To Rekindle Ocean Tradition Faces Long Odds
Artist Tom Anderson is carving a cedar log into an oceangoing canoe so that his tribe can revive its heritage as The Canoe People of Willapa Bay.
But the dream isn’t quite ready to float.
The Shoalwater Bay Tribe had hoped the work would be done this month. Then eight strong men and women could voyage along the Pacific coast and join the Paddle To La Push, a gathering of tribal peoples at the north end of the Olympic Peninsula.
The Shoalwaters discovered, however, that they were not prepared to be canoe people again. For starters, they needed to find someone who knew how to canoe in the ocean.
“It’s been a hundred years since this tribe has had a canoe. We can’t just jump in and start playing Indian,” said Anderson, a 33-year-old tribal member who has spent the past year carving out the log.
“Even if the canoe was ready, we’re not ready as a people,” he said. “We don’t have a sense of who we are, our place in history, our ceremonies. In the past, a medicine man would bless the log, bless the tools and every aspect of making the canoe and putting it to water.
“We don’t know any of that,” he said.
Odds are long against the tiny 150-member tribe. Ocean waves are eroding their thousand-acre patch of sand in the southwest part of the state. In the past decade, a casino project folded, a fight for fishing rights ended in defeat, a generation of Shoalwater babies died, but poverty persists.
The cedar log donated by a local timber company arrived on the reservation in July 1996, dropped in a grassy field just off the highway. The same month, a new doctor came to the reservation.
He was considered a major acquisition. The tribe had suffered an infant crisis in 1992, when 10 of 19 pregnancies ended in miscarriage or infant death. Lack of prenatal care was partly to blame.
The medical staff considers the crisis ongoing. Of 12 pregnancies in the past year, four ended in miscarriage; one involved twins.
Even with The Doc tending patients five days a week, “there’s still a lot of grief on the reservation, a lot of fear,” said Dan Peterson, a tribal health officer. “Women don’t want to get pregnant. They don’t want to take the chance.”
Anderson started carving the canoe in mid-August. He worked night and day by himself because no one offered to help him.
The tribe had two big setbacks in the fall. In September, an appellate court upheld a ruling denying the tribe fishing rights. The state Supreme Court refused to review the case.
“It was a blow that meant more to me than gaming or anything else,” said tribal Chairman Herb Whitish. “That’s the reason we’re here (on Willapa Bay) in the first place - to fish. We’re being denied our livelihood.”
In early December, a Seattle Times investigation of the federal Indian-housing program found that Whitish benefited personally from the program. He built a two-story home partly with federal grant money intended for low-income people.
That brought talk of scandal, but ultimately Whitish was not investigated. The tribe, using what was left of the federal grant money, acquired six houses and two mobile homes.
Hazel McKenney, 80, the oldest living Shoalwater, thinks this “stinking little tribe” will not be able to focus on a canoe, because it’s hardly afloat itself, “stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with no casino, no fishing, no nothing!”
“I will die waiting for this tribe to do something, anything,” she said.
Anderson steamed wood and hollowed out the log over the winter. It began to look like a canoe by early spring. The tribe suddenly faced realities: Would it float? And who would brave the hill-sized swells of the Pacific Ocean as the Canoe People once did?
By late spring, it became clear that no one knew how to canoe, or had the time and inclination to learn.
“Hazel was right about us,” Anderson said. “Maybe we are just a bunch of dreamers.”
Still, a new bingo hall will open just outside Tokeland this fall. The tribe’s fledgling oyster company got approval to sell oysters to Japan, which could double profits.
And the tribe will have a canoe for the next century - 25 feet long, charred black on the outside and trimmed with red on the inside. Someday perhaps the Canoe People will join a gathering of oceangoing tribes to revive their tradition at last.
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