The sky was overcast on the Port Madison Reservation, home of the Suquamish people of Northwest Washington, as seven young men and their supervisor said their good-byes to a crowd of well-wishers and boarded a van stuffed with duffle bags. Their 180-mile drive would bring them to the Eslahan village in British Columbia, Canada, where they would learn the craft of canoe carving. “Here were the boys thinking they were leaving to have fun,” said tribal member Barbara Lawrence, “but we knew they would be forever changed.”
The Full Circle Canoe Project was started in October 2001 to restore the lost craft of hand carving sea-worthy canoes. For thousands of years, the Suquamish had depended on canoes for subsistence fishing, traveling, and trade. But for decades, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, their children were forcibly removed to boarding schools, where they were prohibited from practicing their culture. Without contact with their elders during the critical winter months when traditions were normally taught to the young, much of the language, stories, and skills, such as canoe carving, were lost. Moreover, the tribe lost control of much of the reservation’s waterfront land as wealthy people from Seattle began acquiring it for beach cabins. Later, when the Suquamish and other canoe tribes began exploring how they might bring back the canoe carving tradition, they realized much of the knowledge was lost. Throughout the inland saltwater cultures of the Pacific Northwest, canoe culture nearly disappeared.
Bringing back skills and ceremonies
Across the border in British Columbia, the Suquamish boys began the long process of bringing back the canoe tradition. Under the tutelage of master carver Ray Natrell, they would learn the skills and ceremonies, and bring them back to their people. Natrell, a fifth-generation carver from British Columbia’s Squamish Nation, had kept the tradition alive in his family by carving the smaller racing canoes. Though Natrell is a skilled carver, he wasn’t chosen for his technical skills alone. He was chosen because he knew the sacred teachings and rituals that accompany canoe carving, cultural traditions shared by the Squamish and Suquamish as descendents of the same Coast Salish family.
Under Natrell’s guidance, the boys, aged 15 to 19, followed three months of rigorous training. Each morning by 7 a.m., they’d head to the outdoor carving area. If it was raining, they’d go home during their half-hour lunch break to change out of soaked long johns. The carving continued well into the evening. Instead of visiting home, they worked through the weekends to meet the three-month deadline their tribe had set. Siam Ah-oalts (meaning honorable canoe) was taking shape. The boys were finishing something that their parents’ generation had started in the 1980s.
Paddle to Seattle
In the early 1980s, Washington state was planning its 1989 centennial celebration. The festivities would recognize historic towns, landmark achievements, and people of interest—but hardly any proposals included the state’s original inhabitants. It wasn’t until a young Suquamish woman, Barbara Lawrence, asked, “What about the Indians?”—and wouldn’t stop asking—that the state granted her a seat on the planning committee.
When Lawrence asked Washington tribes what they wanted to see come out of the centennial, all of the western tribes unanimously answered “cedar for canoes.” The tribes were allowed to cut trees from protected forests with the National Guard on hand to aid delivery.
In the months that followed, however, only a handful of canoes were carved out of the cedar logs. Locating someone who still knew how to carve a canoe proved difficult. Tribes shared any remaining knowledge. Some exchanged carvers who, like Natrell, had continued to carve smaller vessels. The Suquamish also attempted to carve their own piece of cedar, but the skills had not existed on the reservation for about 80 years. They hired members from other tribes, but all lacked the skill to carve a larger seagoing vessel.
Though they weren’t able to carve their own canoe, the Suquamish, as part of the centennial celebrations in 1989, hosted the Paddle to Seattle, the first traditional canoe journey in nearly a century. Tribes would have a chance to exhibit and use their newly carved canoes, paddling to the Port Madison reservation on the Kitsap Peninsula and then together to Golden Gardens Park in Seattle. The hosts, the Suquamish, paddled in a borrowed canoe.
Over 30 canoes participated in the paddle and numerous more tribes attended the celebrations. It was the first time in decades that neighboring tribes rode the waters together. “The paddle was an incredibly big deal,” said Lawrence. “We were re-establishing something that was almost gone. It was breathtaking.”
Canoe resurgence might have taken longer had it not been for a young Heiltsuk man, Frank Brown. He traveled over 600 miles by canoe from Bella Bella, British Columbia, to Suquamish to participate in the Paddle. At the celebrations, Brown stood up and challenged all of the attending canoe nations to paddle to his reservation in four years time, each tribe in its own hand-carved canoe. His challenge sparked the beginning of the long-distance canoe journeys that have occurred every year since the successful 1993 voyage to Bella Bella. The Suquamish have participated every year, and each year the journey becomes more popular. Each voyage crosses international borders, reuniting tribes whose culture once stretched unbroken along the coastal waterways of the Pacific Northwest.
Still, the Suquamish had yet to paddle in a canoe that they had carved. After the 2000 journey, a large swath of the community, from elders to youth, agreed that it was time to bring the knowledge of carving back to the people.
Historically, the canoe has been seen by outsiders as simply a means of transportation. But for the Coast Salish, carving is rich with history and culture.
The Full Circle participants began their apprenticeship long before they picked up an adze tool. At a cedar ceremony, Natrell broke fragrant cedar boughs off the log, showing the boys the ritual of cleansing the tree spiritually. The boys heard the stories of the family ties that link the Squamish and Suquamish nations. They learned the meaning behind the creation of the canoe: It is not the death of a 1,000-year-old cedar, but a transformation, a way of bringing something sacred back to life. As they picked up their adzes, Natrell explained that carving is not simply a matter of chopping away but is an act that balances the mental, spiritual, and physical being. The young people learned how to avoid wasting any part of the tree, using bark to make baskets and clothing, boughs for cleansing, and the remainder to make paddles, boxes, bowls, and spoons. They learned traditional songs in their native language.
“It’s all interrelated,” states Peg Deam, Suquamish’s Cultural Development Specialist. “You can’t learn one aspect [of canoe carving] without learning about the others”—cultural aspects such as traditional clothing, songs, language, regalia, and food.
The young men berthed Siam Ah-oalts at a celebration and feast on the Port Madison reservation in January 2002. Bennie Armstrong, the tribal chair, remembered the first unsuccessful carving attempt as he reflected on the success of the Full Circle Project. “This was a great accomplishment,” he said. “It was more significant to [the older generation] than some of the youngsters who made it. It was the culmination of many years of effort.”
Each of the boys agreed that the project changed their lives. “A lot of our youth are at-risk, and in a canoe, they aren’t at risk,” said Nic Armstrong, the boys’ supervisor and co-carver. “They’re pulling and learning songs and strengthening.” Deam said the canoe has “affected the spirit of the Suquamish.” The project took two years in the planning, two months in the carving, and $28,000 in funding, but the Suquamish finally have their hand-crafted canoe.
The success of the Full Circle Canoe Project is just the beginning. The tribe is making plans for phase two of the project; the second half of the original cedar log awaits its transformation on the Port Madison Reservation. This time, the apprentices will serve as teachers, passing on what they have learned to other youth. Although no girls chose to participate in the first carving, the Suquamish are also making plans for a Suquamish ladies racing canoe team, encouraging girls and women to get out on the water and compete with other tribes.
And this summer, more than 120 tribal members will join other Coast Salish tribes as they leave the calm waters of the Puget Sound and head out to the Quinault Reservation, on the rugged Pacific coast. The Suquamish will paddle their own tribal canoe, accompanied by two fiberglass canoes and a private family canoe. Some will be paddling and others setting up camps and helping in preparations. And all along the way, they will be stopping to celebrate their cultural heritage with the other tribes that line the coast.