Canoe stolen decades ago returned to Stillaguamish Tribe

STANWOOD — The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians welcomed Grandmother with stories, drumming and singing.

The family title doesn’t refer to a person. On Monday, the tribe celebrated a reunion with a piece of its history, a 28-foot dugout canoe carved more than a century ago from a cedar tree.

“This is a big thing for us to bring home our heritage and our history,” Tribal Chairman and Fisheries Manager Shawn Yanity said. “Some of these artifacts are really rare. Today, we are able to bring our grandmother home.”

For 23 years the shovel-nose canoe has been in storage alongside antique cars and a horse-drawn buggy in a garage at the Stanwood Area History Museum. A few years ago the Stanwood Area Historical Society was considering using the canoe as a centerpiece for a display when one member’s research led them to a startling conclusion.

The canoe had been stolen off the Stillaguamish River in the 1960s. It rightfully belonged to the Stillaguamish Tribe.

Stories vary on what happened with the canoe 50 years ago. The historical society originally was told it had been salvaged from a muddy riverbank, then that it had been stolen while left unattended on the river. A flood also may have washed the canoe away before someone stumbled across it and took it home.

The canoe ended up on display at a Camano Island home. The historical society bought it at an estate sale there in 1992. They settled it into the garage, a cool, dry place where it would remain undamaged until they decided how best to display it.

Penny Buse is the board member who started researching the canoe and told the rest of the board it likely had been stolen. They voted unanimously to return it.

“We had to give it back,” Buse said. “None of the big museums would do this, but we live here and we felt it was the right thing to do.”

After a short ceremony Monday afternoon, Stillaguamish Tribe members carefully fastened the canoe to a trailer using boards, ties and cushions. They plan to restore the canoe before moving it into a new administration office currently under construction at 3404 236th St. NE in Arlington. The building is expected to open in January and the canoe will be put on display in a place of honor, said Tracey Boser, archives specialist with the tribe’s cultural resources department. She and daughter Tara Boser, the cultural resources director, worked closely with Buse and the historical society to bring the canoe home.

The canoe appears to have been made in the mid 1800s, she said, and “we believe it was in use up through the 1950s because of the repair work and some of the resins that have been used.”

Canoes are a vital piece of the Tribe’s heritage. The Stillaguamish always have been river-faring people. The water, the land and the salmon are part of their culture, Yanity said. The canoe was carved from a tree on the land and then used to fish and maneuver the rivers.

“Our culture is the trees, our culture is the land,” Yanity said. “Our culture sustains all of us. A lot of people don’t realize that by taking these gifts in, there are teachings in this canoe.”

Gail Ryer, president of the Stanwood Area Historical Society, presented the Stillaguamish Tribe with a lifetime membership to the society. She and Buse hope to work with the tribe in the future to share more local history.

“I think sometimes people must think, ‘Oh, a historical society, that must be a bunch of old, dusty people going through a bunch of old, dusty papers, and sometimes they find something interesting,’” Ryer said. “Well we are, most of us, old I guess. And we do have some dusty papers. But we are vitally interested in our future as well as our past.”

That’s why it was an easy, unanimous decision to give the canoe back to the rightful owners. The tribe has a place to display it and the expertise to care for it, and the community gains more from giving and sharing than from having the canoe on display at the museum.

Buse cried “happy tears” when the tribe called her up to say thank you for her work in reconnecting them with the canoe. She wasn’t the only one to shed a tear during the ceremony, attended by about 50 people.

“This canoe has been on a long journey,” Buse said. “We are so thrilled it’s finally going home.”

Before the canoe was carried from the garage, Yanity drummed and sang a song inspired by his family’s quest to rediscover their culture and honor their heritage. It’s called “We are alive and strong.”

Then people shook hands and hugged and, as the canoe was loaded, began to talk about how they would remember this day as another important piece of their history.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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