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‘A sense of healing and resurgence’: Indigenous ‘canoe culture’ on display in real time at MAC exhibit

April 24, 2022 Updated Thu., April 28, 2022 at 8:53 p.m.

Friday, Earth day, a handful of archivists, fishing experts and environmentalists stood under a white tent.

At the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture’s outdoor amphitheater stage, log shavings from two trees were scattered around as the group continued carving canoes. Devon Peone calls this “a canoe family” as he and others enjoy their time together, bonding over a common ancestral ritual between the Upper Columbia United Tribes . Peone, whose Indigenous name, Šitétkw, translates to “leader in the water,” explained the process of prepping the wood for an hourglass incision.

“We’re going to smooth it out until it has a nice shape all around, flip it and dig, then make a nice one- to two-inch wall,” he said. “We’re going to finish the outside and texture it to make it look like it has fish scales; it’ll make it buoyant and faster on the water.”

The canoe carving event has taken more than four years to organize as the tribal members prepared for the rare showcase at a museum. It is part of the MAC’s exhibition, “Awakenings: Traditional Canoes and Bringing the Salmon Home,” which is on display through late August. Once the canoes are finished, they will be used and then placed in the exhibit.

The united group consists of the Spokane, Kalispel, Lakes-Okanogan, Coeur d’Alene and Colville Confederated tribes. One of the founding members is Amelia Trice, a member of the Kootenai Tribe.

Annette and Devon Peone of the Spokane tribe, Loren Bowel of the Kalispel tribe, and members of the Colville Confederated Tribes Jeff Jordan, Crystal Conant and Vince Peone are the main carvers of the event. Non-Native allies such as Jerry White, the executive director of the Spokane Riverkeeper, help with the process.

“It’s great to have an opportunity to share this important part of our tribes’ cultures with the Inland Northwest community. We hope everyone will stop by to see the process of canoe-making in action, and learn about our Tribes’ recent canoe voyages on our region’s rivers,” said Marc Gauthier, the Wildlife Program Manager for the Upper Columbia tribes.

Kayla Tackett is the MAC’s Director of Exhibitions and Collections. One of the goals, Tackett said, was creating a partnership with the tribes, where observation and opportunity could both thrive.

The 2-in-1 event builds relationships between the MAC and the tribes, while it offers the tribes a space to carve canoes and allows observers an up-close, first-hand look. Friday, a group of students observed while some Browne’s Addition residents stopped by on their neighborhood walks. Members of the audience asked questions directly to the carvers, engaging in conversation about the rituals and process.

“It’s really about partnership with the tribes and being a space for the tribes,” Tackett said. “It’s a new tradition here that the public can come in and watch the carvings and talk with the carvers. It’s a pretty unique opportunity here to have that.”

The group worked on sister canoes carved from cedar trees. Nathan Piengkham, one of the volunteers, got started on canoes about six years ago when tribal members introduced the idea of a multitribe canoe.

Piengkham served as the executive director of the River Warrior Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultural preservation and restoration.

“Canoe trips have to bring people together as it brings us all back to our traditional culture,” he said. “Everyone’s history and everyone’s culture, this is what our ancestors did: Come together on canoes.”

The volunteers worked on two cedar tree logs with scorps, a tool to help shave and carve the canoe.

Cedar wood is prized for canoes because it has antibacterial and antifungal properties.

“It’s also insect-repellant as well, so you naturally want to make it out of cedar,” Piengkham said. “Then the center is already hollow, so it takes the work out … it’s pretty much naturally a canoe. All you need is a little TLC and it’ll last you the rest of your life.”

Healing and tradition are two major themes of the canoe culture display. Many of the volunteers found the communal practice therapeutic, as the close-knit group enjoyed each other’s company while tapping into their ancestral practices.

The median age of the group was 33, with many beginning to master the craft passed down to them by elders who considered canoe making their life’s work. Because the canoe practice relies on ancestral studies, Piengkham mentioned it can easily become an act of expressing grief and healing.

“There’s definitely a sense of healing and resurgence,” Piengkham said. “Even then, we’re not doing it the same way others did it, even our parents. We’re a conjunction between two cultures, kind of like a new age and an old age of technology.”

Conant said she had “mixed feelings” over the display of Indigenous canoe culture. She feels a sense of pride and reconnection but, on the other hand, finds it “weird to process” putting her culture on display.

“It can’t just be that we’re all at our house practicing culture,” she said. “Now we’re at an exhibit at a museum, which is OK too because we’re still spreading awareness and the people are awesome and accepting, it’s just weird to process.”

With the tribes and MAC inviting the community into canoe carving, the open display is taking Indigenous practices in a new direction. Patty Porter, a chief and elder of the Colville tribes, noted that this generation has the benefit of using technology to share culture.

“I thank God for all the technology, because they get it out there and it shows everybody,” Porter said. “It shows our culture and it shares everything that people don’t have a clue about.”

After her brother and husband died, Porter returned to her Indigenous canoe practice, allowing the water to heal her. She served as a canoe skipper for the Snaputa Quylwst, which translates to “sacred journey.” She guided the all-woman crew as part of a voyage to the Standing Rock on its anniversary in 2016, part of the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Frequent canoe trips to surrounding tribes around the Pacific Northwest have caught the attention of people around the region and led to better representation.

“This definitely acts as revitalization,” Piengkham said. “Since we’ve started paddling around this area, people have been giving land back, including us in their legislation and saying ‘These guys are still alive,’ even if there’s not many of us.”

The canoe carving practice will be open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays until Memorial Day weekend.

Visitors can attend on those days from 11 a.m. to noon with a guide discussing history and facts related to Indigenous canoe culture.

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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