A couple of years ago Allen Pinkham Jr. was here at the Josephy Center teaching beading and drum building. At the end of his stay, he said that “We Nez Perce were canoe people. I think I’d like to come back here and build a dugout canoe.”
It’s taken patience and the work of many, but Allen is now fully embarked on building his first canoe—as far as we can figure, the first Nez Perce dugout canoe built in over 100 years. Allen’s father, Allen Sr., came and checked the rings on the log to determine top and bottom, and told all the canoe stories he had in his very active memory bank. Local logger Jim Zacharias has helped with logs and making a first rough cut on the first log. Josephy Center board member Tim Norman (who happens to be a pretty darned good sculptor) came with tools and a good backswing to help hollow the log. Bob Chenoweth, the retired curator at the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which is headquartered in Spalding, Idaho, came to offer advice based on his years of studying Nez Perce and regional canoes. According to Bob, there are only 5 or 6 NP dugouts in existence, all of them over 100 years old. The Park has four of them; Montana Historical Society has one, and there might be another out there somewhere.
The Nez Perce National Trail Foundation, the Autzen Foundation and some of you out there in donor land have helped fund the project so far—for which huge thanks.
This first canoe is a15 footer, a one man—or woman—canoe. We have two 30 foot logs waiting in Zacharias’s yard for a full-size canoe. But Allen, who has worked in many traditional arts and visited canoe builders from coastal tribes, has never built a canoe, so he and we liked the idea of building this one-person canoe first.
The project takes on a life of its own. One of Allen’s brothers makes traditional, antler and stone type, tools. The first two canoes—this 15 footer and the first 30 footer—will employ some modern technology, mainly a mill and chainsaws. But Allen mused this weekend that he might ask his brother to make some traditional adzes, that he would eventually figure out how to build a canoe with antler, stone, and fire.
The canoe building goes on outside the Josephy Center front door. Visitors can look at it anytime, and if here on the right weekend, watch Allen work on it and, if so inclined, take a whack or two with adze or wedge and sledge. They can also, as one woman did today, sit down and read Bob Chenoweth’s monograph on Nez Perce and other Plateau region canoes.
You don’t have to be here at the Josephy Center to “think” about canoes. Chenoweth says that the Indians continued to use canoes long after they got the horse, and could travel from present-day Clarkston, Washington to Celilo in six days. The Nez Perce helped Lewis and Clark build five canoes—Chenoweth says that in order to carry men and gear, a couple of them had to be over 50 feet in length. Corps accounts mention numerous canoe sightings on the Columbia—not so many horses. Seasonal Indian villages were mostly along water—the source of food as well as transportation. And horses without roads would still have made for difficult travel.
The first known depictions of Natives by Spaniards—before 1500!—include a man in a dugout! Most of the major cities in the world—as well as scores of Nez Perce villages—were built on river, lake, and ocean. Can you imagine Lewis and Clark in their canoes on the Big River? Imagine the Nez Perce, before 1800, before they saved the explorers, before Astoria and missionaries, Forts Walla Walla and The Dalles, joining a parade of river people traveling to Celilo to celebrate and exchange food, culture, and religion, meeting and making friends and relatives, making new families. Seeing someone with dentalia in a pierced nose.
Think about the history that can be dug out of a canoe.
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Very cool to see this happening. And thanks Rich for a good description of the historical backdrop!
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