A year ago, Allen Pinkham Jr. worked for a few weeks as an artist in residence at the Josephy Center. He beaded and made drums and taught workshops in beading and drum-making. At the end of his stay, Allen said that he’d enjoyed himself, and that he would like to come back—and he had an idea. “We were canoe people. I’d like to come back and build a Nez Perce dugout canoe.” We’ve been working with Allen and aim to help him do that this year.
|Nez Perce Canoe–photo by E.S. Curtis c. 1910|
It turns out that there are only a handful of Nez Perce dugout canoes in existence. The Nez Perce National Historical Park has four of them, so I went and looked at them, and talked with Park curator Bob Chenowith, who has studied them and written about them. And with help from the US Forest Service, Nez Perce National Historic Trail, we are on the road to helping Allen realize his dream. Excuse me, the “water.”
In the course of this year, thinking about the history and cultures of tribes and reading about Indian canoes, I’ve had another historical aha moment. Allen’s right. The Nez Perce and many other Plateau tribes, other tribes of the inland Northwest, and coastal tribes as well, were canoe people. Because we live in a world of wheels and wings, automobiles, planes, roads, railroads, and airfields, it is another thing about Indian Country that most of us have to work at to understand. As Chenowith points out, we are so used to seeing the world from the road, we have a hard time imagining it from the river.
So the “aha” involves recognizing the obvious: the Northwest is ribboned by river systems, primarily the Fraser and the Columbia with their huge networks of tributaries. For the Nez Perce, it was the Snake and Clearwater and Columbia. Commerce and trade traditionally took place on riverbanks; Celilo was a physical and spiritual meeting place for peoples from the far north, coastal tribes, and inlanders to the Rocky Mountains; the diets of these river peoples were salmon and lamprey, whitefish, sturgeon, and other river offerings. Coastal tribes fished and hunted whales—in canoes!
And the first white people depended on rivers and canoes as well. The Lewis and Clark journey was mostly by water—although the Corps of Discovery was staffed with men used to traveling on water and making their craft, the Nez Perce probably helped them build five canoes that took them to Celilo. Canoes propelled the fur trade in the 18th century, and botanist David Douglas was canoed up the Columbia and the Willamette in the 1820s.
Even after the horse, which the Plateau people gained about 1730, Indian people of the inland Northwest, “Salmon People,” were still tethered to rivers. The Nez Perce no longer had to backpack to buffalo country (evidence is that they did so prior to the horse), and horses became huge items of trade and prestige, but there were still canoes. Lewis and Clark saw hundreds on the Columbia, and Clark says “I saw few hourses they appeared make but little use of those animals principally using Canoes for their uses of procuring food etc.
Of course the Nez Perce were proficient with horses. In 1855, Looking Glass came to the Walla Walla treaty grounds horseback from the buffalo country. Looking at Sohon’s drawing of their dramatic entry, one can imagine Stevens trembling a bit, and helping him to decide that the Nez Perce would get their own reservation rather than one shared with other peoples.
And if you ask people who know a little bit about Indians how they think of the Nez Perce, horses is usually one of the things that comes up. Right up to current controversies over the origin of the Appaloosa horse.
Nevertheless, Allen’s question has changed my own thinking, and having him build a canoe here, in some proximity to the Josephy Center and nearby Nez Perce Fisheries, should help us all understand more of how life was lived for thousands of years before it was interrupted by horses, European diseases, missionaries, white settlement, dams, roads, railroads, and airfields.
And remind us that the salmon and the Nez Perce, in spite of all kinds of such disruptions, are with us still.
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