Journey breathes new life into art of canoe carving | Canoe Journey 2012

From left, Savannah Turrieta, Shawn Jones, Vincent Chargualaf and Sequoia Chargualaf of Suquamish sand the paddles they carved and will use in this year’s Canoe Journey. Native youth are becoming more involved in traditional practices.              - Megan Stephenson / Herald
From left, Savannah Turrieta, Shawn Jones, Vincent Chargualaf and Sequoia Chargualaf of Suquamish sand the paddles they carved and will use in this year’s Canoe Journey. Native youth are becoming more involved in traditional practices.
— image credit: Megan Stephenson / Herald

As he sands, Vincent Chargualaf, 17, thinks about why making his own paddle for Canoe Journey is so important to him.

“It’s signifying that it’s yours,” he said. In previous years, paddles would be placed in a pile when all the canoes landed, everyone grabbing one the next morning.

“Some of the kids were on the ground crew, but after they saw the paddles come together, they wanted to paddle,” Craig Miller said of the paddle-carving project. He is assistant manager of the Suquamish youth center and is helping get the 25 young people ready for the Journey this year.

“They’re eager to learn. A lot are staying focused on it,” said Jimmy Price, a S’Klallam artist hired by the youth center to help design and carve the paddles.

“They’re realizing the amount of work that goes into making this sort of thing.”

Vincent is helping a friend finish his paddle, just a few days before the canoes are set to launch from Suquamish Saturday for their week-long journey to Squaxin Island. Vincent made his first paddle last year, the first year he participated in the Journey.

Last year, he had three days to complete his paddle. This year, the kids in the youth canoe had two weeks to carve, shape and sand.

“You eat, breathe and sleep carving and sanding,” Vincent said of his experience last year.

Traditional carving is taking root in the younger Native generation, whose parents were at the forefront of the revival but whose grandparents still remember the days when their culture was banned. Carving paddles is an introductory lesson to one of the most important aspects of Northwest Coast Native culture: the canoe.

“Canoeing brought a lot into my life,” said Ed Carriere, a Suquamish master weaver and carver. “Carving canoes, carving canoe paddles, pounding cedar bark, making cedar bark clothing to wear … it brought all that into my life and culture.”

Before the Paddle to Seattle in 1989, no one living could remember having a traditionally made canoe, much less carving one. During that inaugural Canoe Journey, Carriere said he remembered seeing “all the beautiful canoes out there," at the old dock in Suquamish. So badly did he want to join the dozen or so canoes that he hopped in a kayak to paddle with them.

“We just about got run over by those canoes,” he laughed. But the Paddle to Seattle was the spark that revived canoe carving. In Native culture, the canoe is known as a “vessel of knowledge,” according to David Neel in his book, “The Great Canoes.”

“The canoe is a metaphor for community; in the canoe, as in any community, everyone must work together,” he writes.

Suquamish used an old canoe borrowed from the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, and Port Gamble S’Klallam attempted to make a traditional cedar canoe for the first Journey. Without much of a knowledge base, both Tribes vowed to make better canoes for the Journey to Bella Bella in 1993.

Carriere spent about five months carving his first canoe in 1994. She was 18 feet long, named Julia, after Carriere’s great-grandmother.

Duane Pasco became a mentor for many in those early years, and still is today. Pasco studied Native culture since he was a young boy living in Alaska in the 1930s. He began researching canoes and how to make them in the late 1950s and made his first canoe in 1972, at Kiana Lodge.

By 1989, he was the only man in the area who knew how to carve a traditional canoe. Emmett Oliver, one of the Washington State Centennial organizers, was the father of a Pasco apprentice and approached Pasco to help make Native canoes a part of the celebration.

“It hadn’t been done for generations,” Pasco said. “It was not practical anymore, it was cheaper to build a boat or buy one … [Canoe carving] is a very laborious undertaking.”

Pasco also helped Jake Jones of Port Gamble S’Klallam carve his first canoe. Jones, who was tribal chairman at the time, said there wasn’t much participation then — no one knew how to paddle, much less carve a whole canoe — but he was determined to use the cedar log S’Klallam had been given from Quinault.

He learned to make the tools and in two months carved a 14-foot canoe for the 1989 paddle. Like Carriere, he commissioned a bigger canoe for the Paddle to Bella Bella.

Since the first journeys, each Tribe has made a few more canoes and added modern fiberglass ones as participation in the Journey grew. Traditional canoes are expensive — a cedar log big enough to be crafted into a 25-foot canoe is about $20,000. Carriere said he knows there just isn’t time or money to carve canoes to hold all the families, but they still joke to one another, “Where did you find that Tupperware tree to carve that canoe?”

“Back when I came along, the culture was lost in that period of time,” he said. “Our ancestors had just gone through boarding school, taught to live white man’s [ways], a military sort of life.

“It took all this time to bring it back and re-learn and make all these things. If my great-grandmother hadn’t taught me how to make baskets, that would have been lost, too … The canoe journey has really helped our young people get into Indian ways, Indian culture.”

Carriere’s second canoe, a 26-foot canoe named Wes-i-dult (pronounced WE-see-dalt) and named for his great-great-grandmother, is still used by Suquamish in the Journey. He carved her in 1996, when the Tribe outgrew Julia, which is now on display at Clearwater Casino. Carriere is planning to carve his third canoe for the second Paddle to Bella Bella, in 2014.

Carving is a commitment — spiritually, mentally as well as physically. Traditionally, a carver would prepare himself through fasting, prayer and sweat lodge, according to Neel. The carver would even “avoid combing his hair so that cracks would not develop in the canoe.” Today, carvers still prepare themselves to be focused on the canoe.

After the log is hewn, each side is carefully carved, keeping the bottom about two-and-a-quarter inches thick and the sides about 5 inches thick, Jones said.

The whole canoe is carved, inside and out, and is very narrow. Then comes the steam. Hundreds of stones are collected, heated by a fire. The canoe is half-filled with water and the hot stones placed inside. The canoe is covered and steamed for about 20 minutes. Carriere said the stones are replaced and between each steam sticks are placed along the top to stretch the canoe. After 11 to 12 hours of steaming, the canoe is usually about as wide as it will go — widening from about 22 inches to 44 inches wide in Wes-i-dult’s case.

“It’s just a wonderful experience,” Carriere said. “Get that canoe down on the beach and out in the water and stand on the beach and look at it … If it floats and doesn’t tip to one side, then you know you done a good job.”

Jones shared his experience with a summer school class of junior high students at Port Gamble S’Klallam’s youth center. One of their teachers and Francine Swift, Jones’ daughter, said it was important the young people not forget what it takes to pass the culture on.

“I didn’t grow up with a canoe,” Swift said. “You are inheriting the wealth built by your elders.”


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