Canoe Notes #4

Allen Pinkham Jr was here this weekend working on the canoe. He had some help in a Saturday work party, and the small canoe–16 feet–Is looking like a canoe. To remind, we had it in the water much earlier–Allen wanted to make sure it floated right, without tilting port or starboard. It did, and we got some pictures, etc.

Which means that he could start thinking about the finer points of design and function: making sure the bow is heavier to compensate for the oarsman in the rear; comparing the shapes of bow and stern to photos of old canoes and the new ones being built by river and coastal tribes. It means we took off another 50 pounds I guess. Allen estimates weight at around 300 pounds now, and thinks we can take off more as we clean up the inside hull. Here is what it looks like now, blunt bow to left:

The next move is to finish this one and begin on two 30 foot logs now stored in Jim Zacharias’ yard. Allen talked with Jim this weekend, and the plan is to float the two logs in Wallowa Lake and establish their density–I.e. find the natural bottom of the canoe.

After that–and this is a variation on earlier plan–both logs will be hauled to the Josephy Center, and with a little bit of space on neighbor Sports Corral’s side yard, set them both up to be carved. One will be worked–as this one has been worked–with power tools. The other will be stone and fire. Well, antler, stone and fire to burn out the hull. The power-tool canoe will be another workshop lab, as the 16 footer has been, aimed at making the traditional canoe better.

This all started when Allen taught a beading workshop here a few years ago and said something like “You know, we [Nez Perce] were canoe people long before we were horse people. I’d like to come back and carve one.

Well–our goal is to help him carve three!

Canoe notes #3

Allen Pinkham Jr. got his dugout canoe into the water at Wallowa Lake in November. He’ll be back for some finishing work on this 16 footer, and then on to the 30 footers! The plan is to build one with the help of modern tools–as was done with the smaller canoe–and then one with traditional tools and methods. And then—he wants a trip on the Snake River in 2018.

Meanwhile, here’s the run-up to launch, and the canoe–and Allen and granddaughter–In the water. That’s son-in-law Travis, whose day job is in a commercial boat-building shop, working with Allen.

Canoe notes #3

Canoe, Allen, granddaughter, Wallowa Lake

On Sunday, August 19, we launched Allen Pinkham Jr.’s dugout canoe. This one, as described before, is about 16 feet long, was shaped with help of Jim Zacharias’s mill, Allen’s work with electric chain saw, and his further work—with some minor help from a few of us locals—with chisel, hammer, and adze.

Six of us hoisted it onto James Montieth’s pickup bed, and the six of us lowered it into the water at the boat dock on the north end of Wallowa Lake. There was a big, fancy powerboat across the dock from us, but our craft immediately attracted attention and drew a crowd of 40 or more, including a raft of kids who wanted to try it out.

Which they did. And it floated, and it floated true—not listing port or starboard. Both ends took on about same amount of water, but Allen thinks he can adjust that as he does final shaping of hull and gunnels so that the rower’s weight at the stern will be matched by a heavier bow. At this point the hull is 1-3 inches thick, and he wants it close to 1 inch. And the sides will also be whittled down to ¾-1 inches. (Which all should take off another hundred or more pounds, so that we will be able to load and unload with a smaller crew.)

For those of you following the canoe project, there is a 30 foot log waiting for Allen in Jim’s log yard. He plans to utilize modern technology on that one as well—Jim’s mill, the electric chain saw, etc. But then—the far off dream at this point, but the man has some determination in him—there will be a more traditional canoe, built with the tools available to the Nez Perce before the time of Lewis and Clark, a historical time close to the last time people of the tribe built dugout canoes.

Stay tuned!

Canoe notes #1

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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It’s the Water!

Photo by Edward Sheriff Curtis of Nez Perce Dugout Canoe

A couple of summers ago Allen Pinkham Jr. was here at the Josephy Center teaching workshops. He did a few days of beading and a few making drums with a handful of people interested in the crafts and the Nez Perce Indians who had developed them. At the end of his stay, Allen told me that “We Nez Perce were canoe people you know. I’d like to come back here and carve a dugout canoe.”

That conversation sent me on a journey that landed enough grant funds to bring Allen back—in fact, he’s due in tonight with his father and with Bob Chenoweth from the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho. Bob’s made a study of historic Nez Perce canoes— there are only a handful in existence, and the park has four of them—and will do a program based on his research. Allen Sr. will chip in with stories of canoes and Nez Perce traditions.

Without stealing any of their thunder, I’ll say that that initial conversation with Allen and subsequent talks, reading, and thinking have me looking at regional history in different ways.  I asked Allen Sr. one time if you stopped someone in downtown Lewiston and asked him or her what two words they associated with Nez Perce, what would they say. “The War and horses,” we almost answered my question together.

Water was here before the horse (which the Nez Perce didn’t get until about 1730), and Indians were using canoes on rivers and lakes well after the advent of the horse. Think about it. Lewis and Clark traveled a good share of their miles by water—rafts on the Missouri; and the Nez Perce helped them build canoes that took them to the sea.  In the Journals, they note few horses and many canoes on the Columbia.

David Thompson and the fur traders would pack trade goods on boats and horses, moving from one to the other with the terrain, building new canoes, trading canoes for horses, and on and on.  Locally, it’s obvious that historically, traveling the length of Wallowa Lake would have been a lot easier by water than horseback.

On the other end of the scale, Dr. Loren Davis, an archeologist from Oregon State University, told a recent audience at Wallowology next door that the first immigrants to the Americas probably came by sea, bouncing along the Pacific Shore to the tip of South America. That, and not the land bridge (the times of newer finds are pushing that date back and taking their toll on land bridge theory) is how the Americas were populated as extensively and widely as we now know they were.

Stories go on. This week’s local paper heralds the return of coho salmon to the Lostine River and the Grande Ronde Basin. Similar efforts by Nez Perce Fisheries, and by the Yakima Nation and the Umatilla have reinforced or reintroduced salmon populations across the region. Aaron Penny, a Nez Perce Fisheries worker and tribal member, says that the losses of fish over the last 100 years were like “losing your soul.”

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation Natural Resources Department has a program called “first foods.” The tenant of the program is that if we take care of our foods in the way they are served in the longhouse, we’ll have a healthier environment and healthier bodies. And it all, of course, starts with water. Without clear, healthy water there are no salmon, and then no deer and the other four-leggeds and two leggeds that comprised traditional diet. And without clean and good rain there would be no strong roots and abundant huckleberries to finish the longhouse meal.

The biggest and most important water battle fought by tribes in the past 100 years was probably the fight on Northwest Rivers that led to the Boldt Decision and the determination that half the catch belonged to Indians. For their part, the Indians are restoring habitat and doing all they can with mitigation money to increase the size of that catch.

And simultaneously, from coastal tribes in Washington to these Nez Perce in their traditional Wallowa Homeland, Indians are building canoes again, reclaiming cultural heritage, showing the world that the water has always been and is still primal.

I’m tempted to go on, and tie it all to Standing Rock. But water is water everywhere, and you can do that.

Canoe People

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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