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Published: Tuesday, August 24, 2010, 5:03 p.m.

Stillaguamish Tribe launches canoe that connects its members to their heritage

  • Alice E. Solomon of the Lummi Tribe sings a paddle song for her nephew Felix Solomon, who carved the shovel-nose canoe for the Stillaguamish Tribe. Al...

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    Alice E. Solomon of the Lummi Tribe sings a paddle song for her nephew Felix Solomon, who carved the shovel-nose canoe for the Stillaguamish Tribe. Alice Solomon was taught the song by her mother, and on Saturday at the Salmon Ceremony, she dedicated it to Felix as he and others prepared to put the canoe into the Stillaguamish River for the first time.

  • Jeff Tatro (front) and Shawn Yanity (back), the Stillaguamish Tribe's chairman, paddle the shovel-nose canoe for the first time. The canoe, built with...

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    Jeff Tatro (front) and Shawn Yanity (back), the Stillaguamish Tribe's chairman, paddle the shovel-nose canoe for the first time. The canoe, built with old-growth red cedar and trimmed with yellow cedar, took six months to finish and was used Saturday for the first time on the Stillaguamish River during the Stillaguamish Tribe's Salmon Ceremony. Members of the Stillaguamish, Lummi and other regional tribes celebrated the occasion together.

ARLINGTON -- The guest of honor was the first chinook salmon of the season, but the focus of the day was the launch of the Stillaguamish Tribe's first shovel-nose dugout river canoe in a century.
Continuing on its path to cultural restoration, the tribe on Saturday welcomed hundreds of people from other Northwest Indian tribes and the Arlington community for a day-long celebration at the Victoria Ranch northwest of Arlington.
Tribal members presented Pendleton blankets to special guests and served a generous salmon dinner. There were more gifts, singing, drumming, prayers, speeches -- even a string of jokes told by Stillaguamish Tribal Chairman Shawn Yanity.
The action took place in front of the carefully decorated, freshly completed cedar canoe.
It took six months and six days to get the canoe from log to ceremony, said Felix Solomon. Solomon is the Lummi artist commissioned by the Stillaguamish to carve the tribe's first traditional Coast Salish canoe in modern times.
Last year, a logging company unearthed some old-growth cedar timber from a road bed in the Stillaguamish River watershed near Arlington.
Buried for more than a century, the 300-year-old logs were in good shape, so tribal officials asked Solomon to carve a canoe from one of the old cedars.
It was perfect timing for Solomon, who since 2003 had been studying and making models of Coast Salish river canoes. His research took him to the Smithsonian Institution's American Indian museums in New York City and Washington, D.C., where he was granted special access to the museum's collections.
"The Stillaguamish canoe is very important to all of us Coast Salish people. The men who worked with me on this formed a bond we will never forget," Solomon said. "It's not a racing canoe or an ocean-going canoe. The shovel-nose was how we traveled in the rivers and what we used to fish and gather."
Crossing paths with Solomon was a blessing for the Stillaguamish Tribe, Yanity said.
His 86-year-old grandmother, Stillaguamish elder Lavaun Tatro, agreed.
"The canoe is beautiful. It's amazing how you get something like that out of an old log," she said. "I am proud of my grandson, too. He's had the nerve to keep this journey going."
At this, Yanity choke up a bit. Not that he was the only one Saturday with tears in his eyes.
"I can't explain the spiritual power involved with this canoe," Yanity said. "It's as if our ancestors handed this to us. Now they're telling us there is much work to be done. Now we have to learn how to use this canoe."
Never apologize for not knowing how the ancestors did their work, Lummi elder Bill James told the Stillaguamish tribal members.
"The culture is still within you. Just listen and it will come back to you," James said.
Last summer, the 200-member tribe celebrated its first salmon-welcoming ceremony in more than a generation. None had been celebrated for so long because the tribe voluntarily stopped fishing when the chinook runs faltered. Restoration of the health of the Stilly River has been the major goal of the tribe, Yanity said.
On the banks of the Stillaguamish, just west of the I-5 bridge over the river, Yanity and his cousin Jeff Tatro climbed into the canoe. With a push from their friend Jim Knapp of the Snohomish Tribe, they cautiously paddled out into the middle of the river.
There they laid to rest the bones of the chinook salmon honored during the earlier meal. Wrapped in cedar boughs, the remains of the first salmon of the season drifted down river.
As if to add its blessing, a bald eagle flew over the crowd on the beach.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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