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Coeur d’Alene Tribe carves canoe from ancient cedar log

Independent contractor John Zinser talks about the task of carving an ancient cedar log into a canoe at Coeur d’Alene Tribe Fisheries garage in Plummer, Idaho, on Monday, January 4, 2016. The Upper Columbia United Tribes gave one of the logs to each of the local tribes. The canoes will rendezvous at Kettle Falls this summer. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Independent contractor John Zinser talks about the task of carving an ancient cedar log into a canoe at Coeur d’Alene Tribe Fisheries garage in Plummer, Idaho, on Monday, January 4, 2016. The Upper Columbia United Tribes gave one of the logs to each of the local tribes. The canoes will rendezvous at Kettle Falls this summer. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

An ancient cedar tree is helping members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe reclaim their identity as canoe-makers.

From toddlers to elders, tribal members are taking turns shaping the dugout canoe with hand tools, each fragrant cedar shaving bringing them closer to the craft they plan to paddle more than 100 miles down the Spokane River next summer to a historic fishing site on the Columbia River.

“I saw the wood when it arrived, and I was just amazed,” said Vincent Peone, a tribal wildlife technician who has been part of the project. “I could feel the emotion growing inside of me. … The canoe had been out of our present-day use for so many years.”

The canoe is being carved from a 700-year-old Western red cedar, which was a gift from the Upper Columbia United Tribes. The organization purchased six logs from a rare sale of old-growth cedar last year on the Quinalt Indian Reservation in Western Washington. The logs were given to Inland Northwest tribes, which are making canoes for a rendezvous at Kettle Falls, where they once gathered to harvest salmon.

When it arrived at the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s headquarters in Plummer, Idaho, the log weighed 28,000 pounds. It was 5 feet 2 inches tall laying on its side. The single log took up half the space in the trailer of a logging truck.

With help from John Zinser, a consultant to the Upper Columbia United Tribes, the 35-foot-long canoe started taking shape. Tribal members stripped off the stringy bark. Working with elbow adzes and other hand tools, they exposed the creamy sapwood and pinkish brown interior.

Carving a canoe is patient work, Zinser said. His advice to sixth-grade boys working on the project: Slow down. They wanted to see fast results, but the best work comes from the slow, steady repetition of removing thin strips of wood to pare down the log, he said.

The canoe has a “shovel-nose” design, which was one of several types of canoes used by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s ancestors. People could lean out over the bow to harvest wild rice or tie onto a fishing platform on lakes or rivers.

Shovel-nose canoes were “the workhorses” of inland waterways, said Jeff Jordan, a fisheries biologist for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. “They were kind of like pickup trucks.”

Cottonwood trees were probably a more common material for dugout canoes made by inland tribes, but they would have used cedar when it was available, Zinser said.

The canoe already has a name in the Coeur d’Alene language: warch, which means frog. When the log was delivered in August, a drip irrigation system was installed to keep the wood from drying out in the triple-digit heat. The mist attracted a tree frog, which hung out on the canoe’s bow.

“Mother Nature named the boat for us, which is only proper,” Peone said.

The canoe is about half finished. When the exterior is perfectly shaped – with rounded sides to deflect river currents – the cedar log will be turned over to hollow out the interior. By early summer, the canoe should be ready for its trip to Kettle Falls.

“There’s no experience like having 10 people paddling as a team. It’s a lot different than paddling with one or two people in a canoe,” said Marc Gauthier, the Upper Columbia United Tribe’s forest practices coordinator. “It builds relationships and camaraderie. The next thing you know, people are singing and telling stories.”

The Coeur d’Alenes will paddle down the Spokane River, portaging around the dams. They’ll join the Spokane Tribe on the lower river, paddling together to the Columbia. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are building two canoes, one in Nespelem and one in Inchelium. They’ll paddle north to Kettle Falls.

The Kalispel Tribe and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho also are building canoes. The Kootenais will paddle up the Kootenai River into Canada, then portage to Castlegar, British Columbia, for a trip down the Columbia to Kettle Falls, Gauthier said. They’ll be joined by members of the Kalispel Tribe.

Kettle Falls was one of North America’s premier salmon fishing spots, attracting tribes from all across the Northwest, Gauthier said. The 10,000-year-old Native American fishery ended in the 1930s, when Grand Coulee Dam was built without fish ladders.

The canoe rendezvous will help draw attention to the Upper Columbia United Tribes’ efforts to restore salmon runs above the dam, Gauthier said. The organization has proposed a study of what it would take to return spring chinook and sockeye runs to the 100-plus river miles between Grand Coulee and the U.S.-Canadian border.

The Upper Columbia United Tribes represents the five inland tribes on treaty issues and natural resource restoration projects.

Coeur d’Alene Tribe elders retain oral histories about fishing Kettle Falls. One of Peone’s neighbors told him stories about how her relatives would come from the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana to fish there.

“They used a horse and a buggy to get to the falls,” Peone said. “They would load up with a supply of salmon for the winter.”

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