Gathering of renewal

LA CONNER — About 12,000 people are expected to descend on this small town and the Swinomish Reservation on Monday for the 2011 Salish Sea Canoe Journey celebration.

People from the Tulalip, Stillaguamish and Sauk-Suiattle tribal communities are among those who plan to attend.


tribes and bands from Canada, the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound, Oregon, Alaska and as far away as New Zealand and Hawaii are scheduled to pull their canoes to a Swinomish Channel beach for the 2 p.m. welcome ceremony.

Also to be welcomed and displayed on the beach Monday is the latest shovel-nose dugout river canoe by Coast Salish scholar and artist Felix Solomon of the Lummi Tribe. The 30-foot canoe, commissioned by the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, is similar to the smaller river canoe Solomon carved last year for the Stillaguamish Tribe.

Shovel-nose canoes were the pickup trucks of the river people, used for hunting, fishing and foraging, for hauling goods and family travel. Most of the other canoes at the journey celebration will have prows designed to ply ocean waters. To navigate the rivers, the inland tribes used blunt-nosed canoes with no prows.

Canoe takes shape

Earlier this week, Solomon, his friend Jim Knapp of Arlington, and his cousin, Matt Warbus, sanded and oiled the Sauk-Suiattle’s new canoe.

It was carved from an ancient cedar log found in the Stillaguamish River watershed. The log weighed thousands of pounds. The canoe that emerged weighs about 400 pounds, with its one-inch-thick sides and two-inch-thick flat bottom.

A group of more than 50 people gathered at Solomon’s studio July 2 to witness and participate in the all-day steaming of the canoe. Red-hot steel from a fire was placed in water poured into the belly of the boat. As the canoe’s sides relaxed in the steam and took on its current shape, tribal elders prayed and sang.

On hand from the Sauk-Suiattle were cultural director Norma Joseph, Nancy DeCoteau and carver Kevin Lenon, who also worked many hours to help create the eight-man canoe.

Sauk-Suiattle Chairwoman Janice Mabee said the steaming ceremony was especially spiritual.

“It was very moving. The canoe is important to us because it will help us revive old traditions,” Mabee said. “Our grandfathers used shovel-nose canoes to travel on the Suiattle River. Watching the canoe come to life made my heart swell with pride.”

Solomon is pleased with the new canoe.

“It has a powerful spirit and it’s beautiful,” Solomon said. “But it isn’t really about the canoe as much as it is about how the canoes are bringing us together to bring our culture back to life.”

Knapp, who is part Snohomish, volunteered to work on the Stillaguamish canoe last year and wrote a small book about the experience.

“My great-grandfather used simple tools to carve a 40-foot shovel-nose canoe for travel on the Snohomish River,” Knapp said. “I only wish I could have been there. You wonder what the conversations were while he and his relations worked.”

A long trip

Lenon is scheduled Saturday to load up a crew of 10 and head down the Sauk and Skagit rivers to La Conner for the Canoe Journey gathering.

The trip will be the first in generations.

Instead of using their new canoe, which still needs some finishing touches by Solomon, the Sauk-Suiattle group plans to travel with Shane Turnbull of Chinook Expeditions in Index.

During the journey downstream, they will monitor the water quality of the rivers for the U.S. Geological Survey, Lenon said.

Most of the other canoe crews traveling to the gathering are participating in the water quality survey. A sensor hangs from the back of each canoe, collecting data throughout the day.

The Sauk crew plans to stay the night along the Skagit River near Sedro-Woolley and arrive at Swinomish on Sunday evening, Lenon said.

“We will be very tired, but we will be happy to join everybody,” Lenon said.

Song, dance, stories

The Canoe Journey gathering and potlatch runs through July 31. The Swinomish Tribe has built three pavilions on the beach, each shaped like a giant Coast Salish hat. Throughout the week tribal members plan to tell the stories of their history in word, song and dance and share the tales of their journeys. Some events are not open to the public.

In 1989, the year of Washington’s state centennial, tribes in region traveled to Seattle to revive a tradition of gathering to celebrate their connection to salmon, water and each other.

The canoe journey became an annual event, with some tribes traveling in canoes for weeks on the open waters of the Salish Sea to the summer gathering hosted each year by a different tribe. About 130 canoes are expected next week at Swinomish, where the tribal community plans to feed thousands of people two meals a day.

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