Local couple paddles, teaches about boating to preserve native heritage

Published on Wed, Apr 3, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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Since the first multi-tribal canoe journey to Seattle in 1989, Pacific Northwest Native American tribes have revived a major component of their heritage – the ancient art of carving and paddling dugout canoes – by paddling en masse to the land of a hosting tribe each summer.

Blaine residents Ron Snyder and Cathy Taggett have participated in the revival of native canoe culture in various roles since 
2001. That year, Snyder helped launch a canoe project called Carving Cultural Connections while serving as principal at an alternative school in Seattle. 

Working with the Center for Wooden Boats and with guidance from master carver Saaduuts Peele from Hydaburg, Alaska, students carved a canoe from a single red cedar log over the course of three years. Many of the students at the alternative school came from Native American backgrounds, and the hands-on experience gave them a glimpse into an important piece of their cultural heritage.

The final result was a majestic 37-foot canoe named Ocean Spirit. A group of students, teachers and parents paddled the canoe to Haida Gwaii, B.C., where it was given to a Haida chief in a gifting ceremony called potlach.

The potlaching of the canoe to a tribal leader brought the project full-circle, Snyder said, as students were able to connect a history lesson with a real life experience.

“The idea of persistence, of seeing a project through to completion, the value of giving over receiving, the carving skills and the sense of pride in a cultural tradition – the lessons taught by this project went far beyond a history lesson,” Snyder said. 

The history behind the hands-on lesson dates back several millennia. In pre-modern times, Pacific Northwest Native American tribes traveled the rivers, lakes and seaways of the Pacific Northwest in hand-carved dugout canoes. The cedar vessels were unsurpassed in canoe design. They could carry up to 40 people, last up to 100 years and were an essential tool for commerce, diplomacy and travel.

“Canoes were to northwest tribes what horses were to Midwest tribes,” Snyder said. “The rivers and seaways of the northwest were like highways for Native Americans.”

Canoes helped native peoples maintain a marine-based way of life, but that way of life was diminished as white settlement fractured, marginalized and relegated the various native tribes to ever-smaller tribal lands. The canoe heritage that had once been a major source of cultural pride fell to the wayside, and by 1985 the art of carving and paddling dugout canoes – a unique tradition some 8,000 years old – was all but lost.

In 1986 a group of Washingtonians began a project to recapture and preserve canoe culture in the northwest. Quinault 
educator Emmett Oliver organized canoe carvings and in 1989 several tribes paddled the canoes across Puget Sound to Seattle where the Duwamish tribe welcomed them. The tribes held potlaching ceremonies, which were outlawed by Canada and the U.S. in the 1800’s. They also raced their canoes in Puget Sound and shared the traditional songs and dances of their respective tribes. Called “Paddle to Seattle,” the event involved members from 18 tribes and was a huge success.

The concept evolved, and in 1993 the canoe journey became an annual event. Hundreds of natives from dozens of tribes canoed to the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, B.C. in 1993. Some tribes came from as far away as the Olympic Peninsula, and the tribal canoe journey has grown every year since then. For the 2012 journey, more than 12,000 individuals in 100 canoes representing 90 U.S. tribes and Canadian First Nations paddled to Squaxin tribal lands near Port Angeles.

For the past three years, Snyder and Taggett have participated in the tribal canoe journey by paddling a section of the journey with the Gunnuk canoe family, a group of family and friends of Saaduuts and Jan Peele, named in memory of their late son Gunnuk. This summer Snyder and Taggett plan to paddle for 16 days on the journey to Quinault lands on the western coast of the Olympic Peninsula.

Many tribes have continually struggled with social ills such as alcoholism, drug-use, poverty and depression, and a major focus of the canoe journey is to promote sobriety and cultural pride.

“Alcohol and drugs have been pretty hard on Native American cultures,” Snyder said. “The canoe journeys are a rite of passage. There is zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol or mean-spiritedness. On top of that, there is a tremendous sense of pride in tradition, not as measured by white man’s culture, but as measured by their own. So many youth have gotten involved in this and it’s been very positive.”

Jan Peele, who coordinates the Gunnuk canoe family every year, shared a story of one of the young paddlers who participated in last year’s journey.

“He was quiet, withdrawn and rarely smiled,” she said. “I don’t know that he even wanted to join last year, but he did. At the end of the journey, after spending weeks with the other youth and the adult men, he broke out of his shell. He had color, he smiled, he walked taller and he could look you in the eye and talk.”

Snyder and Taggett have raised $1,500 to sponsor youths who want to participate in the canoe journey. 

Participation requires basic expenses such as snacks and fuel for the land crew and safety motorboats that travel with the canoes. Tribes along the route of the journey host paddlers each night, supplying breakfast, dinner and shelter, but Snyder estimates the other costs at $50 per child. They have agreed to match any donations that come in.

“We want to make it possible for any child to do this, because they are the ones who will be carrying this forward,” Snyder said. 

Donations will be accepted until mid-July, and anyone looking to get involved can contact Snyder and Taggett at 360/332-8082.