The dug-out canoe, shaped by Spokane tribal members from a 700-year-old tree, strained against the wind on Lake Pend Oreille, whitecaps breaking over the side. Wooden, leaf-shaped paddles dug into the water, one rower on each side of the canoe. The skipper in the back shouted encouragement and counted off the rhythm in Salish.
It was the second annual Remember the Water paddle organized by the Kalispel Tribe, and Mother Nature was providing a stiff initiation.
The paddle culminated Saturday after four long days of rowing, landing at the Kalispels’ powwow grounds near Usk, Washington, just in time for the tribe’s 43rd annual powwow.
Last year, for the first time in about a century, tribal members paddled 51 miles from Sandpoint to their home, joined by neighboring tribes along the way. This year, they added miles to the beginning of their journey, putting their traditional dug-out canoes onto Lake Pend Oreille near Hope, Idaho, in search of area petroglyphs left by their ancestors.
The Kalispel historically occupied North Idaho around these waterways. They visited neighboring tribes and gathered for celebrations using traditional watercraft – each canoe hollowed from a single old-growth tree centuries in the growing. With the advent of the logging industry, the old growth all but disappeared. The ancient inland cedars were decimated; dams were built; the salmon could no longer swim upriver. Everything changed.
But two years ago, the Upper Columbia United Tribes – the Kootenai, Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel and Spokane – bought cedar logs estimated to be 500 to 900 years old from a coastal Salish tribe. They spent months crafting their boats from these logs. Thus, paddling season was born again.
As the tribes are learning, paddling season is as changeable as the weather. Because of the weather this summer, the trip proved to be more challenging than last year’s. Even with the current of the Pend Oreille River pulling the canoes toward Usk, pausing meant going backward, so pausing was out of the question. There was only the rhythm of the canoe, lurching forward in slow increments with the movement of the paddles; only the repetitive toil of stroke after stroke, flipping the paddle sideways on each return through the air so the resistance against the wind was lessened.
You can feel each movement of each paddler, said Kalispel tribal member Nathan Piengkham. Each time someone puts a paddle in, each time someone shifts or turns their head, you feel it. And the canoes become a metaphor, because when the wind is strong, the way is easier.
Tribal lines dissolve, and together the rowers lift their paddles and sink them into the water on the Salish count of the Spokane skipper.
The paddle had been spearheaded by Piengkham as a way to highlight the importance of unpolluted water to the natural ecosystem. Water brings either life or – if it has been misused – death, a fact highlighted by a fish floating belly up as the canoe passed.
The tribes came together on the paddle both figuratively and literally, one canoe family. The Colville canoe and skipper Patty Sam Porter made the journey with members of the Kalispel Tribe as her crew. Canoes joined, paddlers maneuvered separately and together, until arms outstretched, the inner rowers bridged the crafts to form a raft.
Thus in calmer moments the canoes, one Kalispel, one Spokane, moved forward as one, propelled by the outside paddlers. A salmon, fighting the wind, adding fins to push itself forward.