Stillaguamish carves traditional dugout canoe

By Gale Fiege
Lummi Reservation, Washington (AP) July 2010

The fire was ready.

It was time for the final critical step in the construction of the Stillaguamish Tribe’s first dugout canoe in more than a century.

With hooks, they hoisted a red-hot glowing hunk of car engine from the fire pit and lowered it into the water-filled canoe.

Stillaguamish Tribal Chairman Shawn Yanity and his friend Jim Knapp, a member of the Snohomish Tribe, stepped back as the water cracked, sizzled, bubbled and boiled.

Felix Solomon grabbed a tarp, pulling it over the length of the 22-foot cedar canoe. Steam billowed from the sides of the covering. The men shared nods and smiles.

“We have a Lushootseed word for how wonderful this feels,” said Knapp, of Arlington. “But there are no words in English.”

Solomon is the Lummi artist commissioned by the Stillaguamish to carve the tribe’s first traditional Coast Salish shovel-nose river canoe in modern times.

Solomon had many visitors to his studio west of Bellingham on Friday to watch the 12-hour process of steaming and bending of the canoe to its final shape – flat bottomed and wide-bodied with an upturned, blunt stem and stern. After the wood became pliable, the width of the canoe grew more than a foot, forcing the bottom to drip and the ends to raise a few inches.

The onlookers included members and elders of several Northwest tribes, the Native American art curator for the Seattle Art Museum, a photographer from the Smithsonian Institution, a former longtime mayor of Bellingham, and other artists and carvers.

Before the steaming began, Solomon’s cousins sang their grandfather’s song and blessings were offered by several tribal leaders and elders, including Bill James, the hereditary chief of the Lummi people.

The firewood included the cedar shavings left behind as the canoe emerged. Unable to locate the hard rocks his ancestors might have used to steam wood, Solomon decided on metal scraps.

Solomon is becoming internationally known for his efforts to bring back traditional Coast Salish designs. A visit to the National Museums of the American Indian in New York and Washington, D.C., in 2007 gave Solomon a chance to photograph the Smithsonian’s collection of Lummi and other Coast Salish art and artifacts.

His work is part of what is being hailed as a renaissance of Coast Salish art, said Robin Wright, curator of Native American Art at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle. Before embarking on the Stillaguamish canoe project, Solomon studied and measured ancient Coast Salish canoes displayed throughout the region and tried to get a firm grip on the complex engineering of the boats.

“It’s been a very spiritual journey,” Solomon said. “A sort of out-of-body experience and a labor of love.”

It wasn’t an easy trip, though.

Several days before the scheduled steaming ceremony, a knot in the soaking canoe popped out and had to be replaced with a butterfly-shaped plug. Then during the steaming process, lengthwise cracks developed on each side of the canoe. One of Solomon’s mentors, Northwest Indian artist Duane Pasco of Poulsbo, arrived just in time Friday to help Solomon fill the cracks so the steaming could continue.

The artist estimates he will need about three weeks to complete the finishing touches on the canoe. The Stillaguamish Tribe plans a ceremony and canoe launch on July 31 on the banks of the Stillaguamish River.

Last summer, the tribe celebrated its first salmon-welcoming ceremony in more than a generation. Efforts to regain traditional ways continue among the Stillaguamish people.

“We’ll never get back to the way our culture once was,” Yanity said earlier this year. “But we will celebrate our past and the coming day when we launch our new canoe, carved from a tree that was growing when the ancestors walked among the old cedar forests.”

Last year, a logging company unearthed seven old-growth cedar logs 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.

“We haven’t seen this for many generations. Felix is bringing this skill back to our families and our community,” said Darrell Phare, Solomon’s cousin. “The ancestors have blessed us and are waiting for the result. We thank Felix for doing this for all of us.”

Last week Lora Pennington sat most of the day near the fires that surrounded the canoe. She watched as the metal scrap was removed, reheated and returned to the canoe. The cultural resource specialist for the Stillaguamish Tribe, Pennington is a member of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and is related to both Yanity and Solomon.

“This is what we need at this time. This canoe is at the heart and soul of transformation, reminding us that we have everything we need within us,” she said. “This canoe has built a community of people from Northwest tribes. We are bringing back the ways that sustained our people for so many generations. I am so proud of my cousins for doing this.”

Near the end of the steaming and bending process, the people formed a circle and listened to Bill James tell the story of creation.

Yanity and Solomon agreed that it was a day that couldn’t be bought.

“This is just the beginning of the journey of this canoe,” Yanity said.