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Tribal Canoe Journey 2013: The Resurrection Of Northwest Coast Canoe Culture Offers A Glimpse Back Through Time

Landing the War Canoes from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

I always try to catch the final landing of the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, and usually like to watch it from the water in a kayak. This year's Journey celebration promised to be spectacular, because it was hosted by the Quinault Indian tribe, whose reservation is located in Taholah on Washington's coast. About one hundred canoes would be completing an open ocean voyage and landing through surf. Since it was a weekday, Katya and I both took a day off work to drive to the coast to catch this event.

A traditional Northwest Coast canoe paddles through the surf.  The square rigger Lady Washington, visible in the background, acted as a support vessel for the Canoe Journey.
A traditional Northwest Coast canoe paddles through the surf. The square rigger Lady Washington, visible in the background, acted as a support vessel for the Canoe Journey.

 

Canoes on the beach, Grenville Bay.
Canoes on the beach, Grenville Bay.

 

Some of the canoes had landed the day before and were parked side by side on the expansive beach, with paddles, lifejackets and empty plastic water bottles littering their bilges. The paddlers had camped overnight in tents nearby. As the other canoes arrived later in the day, these canoes would be launched through the surf again to make another landing, an official one this time, with their captains formally asking permission from the hosting Quinault tribe to come ashore.

Canoes at Grenville Bay, paddlers' tents in the background.
Canoes at Grenville Bay, paddlers' tents in the background.

 

A cedar wreath hangs over the prow of a canoe.
A cedar wreath hangs over the prow of a canoe.

 

Although it marked the end of a long journey (as long as a month for some of the pullers traveling from British Columbia) it was only the beginning of a non-stop six day celebration involving feasting, singing, dancing, and drumming. Each tribe would take a turn presenting its ceremonial protocol, a collection of traditional songs and dances handed down from generation to generation.

Although a few canoes are made of fiberglass, most are traditionally built, the hulls carved out of a single large cedar log.  Sea kayaker Reg Lake helped design and build a cedar strip canoe for the Lummi tribe, which can be seen in this video. It was probably the lightest canoe there for its size.

In the mid 1980s, before the first intertribal canoe journey involving 18 canoes called the "Paddle to Seattle", the skills and knowledge needed to carve an ocean going native canoe using the traditional method had almost completely disappeared. When the movement to resurrect the canoe tradition in the Pacific Northwest began, it had been almost 50 years since anyone had carved a canoe. It wasn't even possible for the tribes to harvest trees large enough to make canoes until they were able to obtain a permit from the US Forest Service to harvest 600-year old trees. They got approval under the 1978 Religious Freedom Act, because of the canoe's religious and ceremonial significance. The Washington National Guard and a few private companies assisted the tribes in harvesting and transporting the old growth trees used to build the canoes in the first Paddle to Seattle.

 

A traditional Northwest Coast canoe is carried from the water.
A traditional Northwest Coast canoe is carried from the water.


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A detailed description of canoe construction can be found in Hillary Stewart's book Cedar: Tree of LIfe to the Northwest Coast Indians, as well as online in Edward Curtis's book The North American Indian (Volume 9, page 60), both amazing resources. Traditionally, enormous red or yellow cedar trees were felled using simple handtools and fire. Working with adzes and chisels with blades of stone or bone and driven by short stone mauls, the natives would first gouge out two deep parallel grooves around a tree about 30 inches apart. As the wood between the two grooves was chiseled out in planks, one large grove was made around the circumference of the tree. Glowing hot rocks were placed into the groove to further deepen it with fire. Mud was caked onto the tree above the hole to control the burn. It would take several days to fell a tree, which could be as large as 6 feet in diameter. A trunk this size could be used to make two large canoes or three smaller ones.

Although trees close to the building site or ocean were more convenient, trees deep in the forest that were sheltered from sunlight didn't grow branches along most of their trunks and therefore had straight, uninterrupted grain, which was more desirable. They sometimes needed to be transported miles to where the canoe would be finished. After the tree was felled it would be split and the bark and the sapwood removed. The outside would be carved to final shape. It would then be left outside over the winter to allow the wood to mature. In the spring, the builders would return to the site to rough out the inside to make it lighter for transport to the final building site.

The master carver would carve out the inside of the canoe using adzes and chisels. Excess wood would be removed as planks. Alternatively, fire and controlled burning could be used. Carving the walls to uniform thickness was achieved by drilling holes into the walls and inserting pegs of predetermined length into them, and then carving the sides down until the pegs were reached. It has also been reported that master carvers were able to accurately determine the thickness of the wood by feel alone. Carvers were able to achieve remarkable thinness and uniformity in the hull, which was typically two finger widths thick at the sides and three finger widths at the bottom.

When the interior was fully carved out, the canoe would be filled with water, and red hot rocks would be placed inside to bring it to boil. This would soften the sides enough to get them to flare outwards. A slow fire built around the entire canoe would also help soften the wood. Builders would force thwarts between the sides and lash them at the gunwales to push the sides further apart.

 

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The joint between the prow and hull is visible.
The joint between the stern and hull is visible.

 

The prominent upswept bow and stern on canoes were actually pieces separate from the hull and were joined to the hull with wooden pegs and lashings of cedar withe or rope. Cracks, holes, and rot could be repaired by replacing damaged sections with new wood, chalking the cracks with cedar fiber, lashing pieces together with cedar withes, rope, or spruce root and then sealing the joints with pitch.

Finally, the outside of the canoe was charred with burning branches and pitch to harden the wood. Charring the hull was responsible for the traditional black color. Rubbing the wood with fish oil sealed and protected it. The inside of the canoe was painted, and designs could be carved and painted on the outside as well.

British explorer Captain James Cook reported that the average canoe was 40 ft long with a 7 foot beam and 3 feet deep. The largest ocean going canoes could be 64 feet long and 8 feet wide. One has to wonder if there even exist trees big enough today to build a canoe this large.

 

Paddlers guide a canoe onto the beach.
Paddlers guide a canoe onto the beach.




The Mysteries of British Columbia's Ancient Clam Gardens, REVEALED!

Mysteries of Ancient Clam Gardens from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

The aboriginal people of coastal British Columbia used smoked clams as a standard of exchange. Clams were skewered on flexible cedar branches and hung from the ceilings of the cedar bighouses where the smoke from indoor fires would dry and cure them. Rings of smoked clams were traded for other goods such as bentwood boxes, bowls, baskets, blankets, canoes, etc. This might explain the origin of the use of the word "clam" as American slang for "dollar".

In addition to salmon, clams were an important food source for the First Nations people. This is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a coastal midden, which is essentially an enormous pile of clam shells. In the past, scientists thought that salmon was the staple of the coastal aboriginal diet and it was only relatively recently that this idea was challenged. It didn't seem possible that people could subsist on salmon year round, because the salmon run is seasonal and dried fish could not have lasted through the rest of the year. Additionally, some archeologists started to discover bones of smaller fish such as herring, smelt and anchovies by sifting through middens using sieves with a smaller mesh than had ever been used before. The discovery of clam gardens also was evidence of the large role clams played in the native diet. Drawing from a wide variety of food sources protected the aboriginal people against starvation when the salmon run was late or would fail.

 

Native Watchman Tom Sewid stands on the low rock wall of an ancient clam garden.  Photo © Katya Palladina
Native Watchman Tom Sewid stands on the low rock wall of an ancient clam garden. Photo © Katya Palladina

 

The existence of low rock walls along beaches in British Columbia in the intertidal zone had been known for some time but their origin and significance remained a mystery among non-natives. These walls are ubiquitous in the Broughton Archipelago, and have been found all along the Pacific coast, from Sitka, Alaska to Saanich Inlet in British Columbia. Some are monumental, measuring up to 2 meters high and 1.5 km long. Some scientists to questioned their human origin, proposing instead that they were naturally formed by kelp attaching to rocks and floating them toward one end of the beach at high water, driven by wind and waves, where they dropped and collected in piles resembling walls. It was only in 1995 when a geomorphologist conducting aerial surveys of the Broughton Archipelago determined that they were of human origin. Finally, archeologists consulted Kwakwaka'wakw elders who had known what they were all along: they had even worked on the clam gardens, knew their Kwak'wala names and shared their oral histories.

Clam gardens, or lo'hewae, as they are known in Kwak'wala, are formed by clearing a beach of rocks and boulders as clams are harvested. The rocks are used to build low walls running parallel to the beach in the intertidal zone. This forms terraces which raises the level of the beach and creates flat areas where the water can pool -- a perfect habitat for clams. The existence of ancient clam gardens adds to the evidence that the aboriginal First Nations people actively managed their marine food sources, and practiced sustainable aquaculture for at least the past 2000 years.

 

Andrew and Tom. The low rock wall and flat beach of a clam garden is clearly visible. Photo © Katya Palladina
Andrew and Tom. The low rock wall and flat beach of a clam garden is clearly visible. Photo © Katya Palladina


 


Indian Guide Tom Sewid Will Save You From Being Eaten By Bears

Tom Sewid, Native Watchman from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

How many sea kayak guides do you know carry a shotgun? Tom Sewid keeps one around just in case, in addition to bear spray. Every island in the Broughton Archipelago except the tiniest has bears. Tom says that some sea kayakers camp on the small islands to avoid them, but that doesn't entirely eliminate the risk of a bear encounter, because bears can swim. "Bear safe" camping practices are always recommended here, including sleeping away from where you cook and store food, hanging food or keeping it in bear-safe containers, and always carrying bear spray, but I have to admit that Katya and I didn't do any of that because the other campers told us there weren't any bears on our island. Plus we felt safe among the crowd: you can't outrun bears, but as long as you can run faster than the next guy you're safe! Black bears are very common here and they are easily scared away by humans, although there are very rare situations where they can be dangerous. More of a concern are grizzlies which are far less common, although supposedly there is one wandering around Harbledown Island which the locals affectionately have named "Peanut."

Tom used to command a commercial salmon seine vessel, prior to becoming an entrepreneur in the eco-tourism business, running whale watching and sea kayak adventures as well as grizzly bear tours. These days he wears the regalia of the Native Watchman of the traditional lands of the Mamalilikulla Qwe'Qwe'Sot'Em' band (tribe).

The first Native Watchman program was started in Haida Gwaii in the 1990s. The goal of the program was to share responsibility for maintaining the ecological integrity of the land between the Canadian government and the First Nations people. It was an acknowledgement that the Indians were in the best position to help manage the wilderness as well as protect the areas most sacred to them, such as ancient village sites and burial grounds. First Nation elders who still occupied the land not only possessed a vast store of traditional knowledge or "naturalized science" about the local ecology, they also also maintained their ancient tradition of stewardship and management of natural resources.

Native Watchman Tom Sewid greets kayakers on the beach at Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Native Watchman Tom Sewid greets kayakers on the beach at Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
The massive gate (remnants of the interior frame of a longhouse) among abandoned houses of the village of Mamalilikulla at Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
The massive gate (remnants of the interior frame of a longhouse) among abandoned houses of the village of Mamalilikulla at Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Darcy Coon, Village Watchman. Photo © Katya Palladina
Darcy Coon, Village Watchman. Photo © Katya Palladina

Long before the official Native Watchman program in Canada, Tom was already giving eco-cultural tours of the ruins of Mamalilikulla, the "Village of the Last Potlatch", on Village Island. An extremely knowledgable and entertaining storyteller with a remarkable memory for detail, he would share the legends and stories of his ancestors while dressed in full traditional regalia with visitors who arrived by kayak and small boat. When the official Native Watchman program was instituted in the Boughton Archipelago, he was in the perfect position to step in.

The scenic beauty, vastness, remoteness, and ecological richness of Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coastline make it a popular sea kayaking destination. Unfortunately, kayakers often pass through with little understanding of how thousands of years of human habitation have shaped the environment.

Numerous examples of past human habitation can be found on Mound Island, a campsite that is often at full capacity during the summer months. Mound Island is popular because it is a free public site, has a pit toilet, and is only an eight nautical mile paddle from Telegraph Cove. It also has a protected, kayak-friendly beach composed of crushed clam and barnacle shells. From the campsite there is a view west across a small channel to Harbledown Island. Just west of the beach is a tiny peninsula where visitors have stacked rocks into cairns.

Mound Island was our first campsite when we paddled from Telegraph Cove for the Broughton Archipelago. Tom says that each "mound" on Mound Island used to be an Indian dwelling. All that remains now are large depressions where each house had been dug into the earth. The natives would use the narrow channel between Mound and Harbledown as a fish trap, capturing fish carried by the rising tide. Clam shell middens line the beach. The aboriginals also collected rocks studded with barnacles and cooked them by placing them in boiling water. Tom says they taste like oysters. The Indians would pluck out the flesh and discard the rocks. Over centuries, this created a white beach of crushed shells.

White shell beach at Mound Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
White shell beach at Mound Island. Photo © Katya Palladina

On the day before the full moon, Katya and I awoke in the morning to find the channel completely exposed by the low tide. On a whim we dug a few handfuls of mussels out of the mud for breakfast. Not having a fishing license, we guiltily hid our catch from the native watchmen Tom and Darcy Coon as they dropped by on their boat to chat with the campers on the beach. We actually talked with Darcy for quite a while, nervously wondering if he would pick up on the aroma of stewing mussels not more than a yard away from where he stood. When we casually mentioned the abundance of mussels to Tom later, he said don't eat them this time of the year because of red tide and the risk of dying of paralytic shellfish poisoning.

If you have ever foraged for shellfish here, you won't be surprised to hear that the intertidal zone of a Pacific Northwest Coast beach contains more protein per cubic meter than any other area on earth, and you can eat just about everything on it. It's the reason why bears prefer to forage at low tide during the spring. They push over boulders and eat whatever is underneath, including crabs, eels, bullheads, sand worms, ghost shrimp, mussels, and barnacles.

Traditional clam garden beach. Photo © Katya Palladina
Traditional clam garden beach. Photo © Katya Palladina

Another example of both the ecological and archeological richness of this area are the traditional clam beds, which are likely thousands of years old and are unique to this part of the world. In the process of harvesting clams, aboriginals would remove large rocks and pile them along the edges of a clam bed, forming low walls around clam areas. Over time this would result in the formation of a long, flat, cleared beach, a perfect clam habitat. It is thought that the low walls around clam gardens might stabilize the beach and trap sediment and phytoplankton, allowing for more clam recruitment or faster clam growth. Although not obvious to those unaware of their existence, these traditional clam beds are ubiquitous in the islands of the Broughton Archipelago.

Tom at the Chief's Bath on Berry Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Tom at the Chief's Bath on Berry Island. Photo © Katya Palladina

On the north shore of Berry Island there is a large pictograph painted on a sheer rock wall, clearly visible from the channel. It is the Bakbakwalanooksiwae, "The Cannibal at the North End of the World". The faded orange paint was made partly from crushed salmon roe. To the right of the pictograph is a ledge with a deep depression, called "The Chief's Bath". It was used for a ritual bath in ceremonies prior to potlatch or war.

This part of Berry Island is an Indian burial ground and is off limits to visitors. The Indians practiced above-ground "burial". After bathing the body, it was dressed and placed in the fetal position on the ground or inside a cedar bentwood box at the bottom of the bluff. Eventually, the bodies became covered with falling branches, dead foliage, and erosion from the overhanging bluff, and effectively become buried. Bones also became food for animals such as mice and voles.

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One of the most important things that the native watchman does is educate people about this sacred site and prevent its desecration. There used to be a fishing resort on the island with a trail which unfortunately led curious visitors to the area.Tom says there were times when he resorted to throwing fishing guides off the rocks because they would not heed his repeated warnings to keep out. As he led us up the steep bank from the rocky beach before showing us this area, he called out to the dead: "In the Cree way, I offer you tobacco, to the North, to the South, to the East, and to the West. In your resting, Halla Kas La, go in peace".

Frequently in these islands we encountered the deteriorating ruins of houses, obscured by overgrown grasses and berry bushes. How could communities have thrived here in what now seems like a remote postapocalyptic wasteland being rapidly reclaimed by nature? We found them not only in Village Island but other places as well. Some rooms still had furniture or kitchen supplies. The upholstery of old couches would be rotted away, exposing the springs. The plywood floors were disintegrating. We found abandoned boats both on land and in the water. One cove just south of the Indian village of Tsatsisnukwomi (also known as New Vancouver) on the north end of Harbledown Island, was like a boat graveyard, with half sunken hulls floating among a tangle of ropes. A peak inside might reveal old pots and pans or an alcohol stove. Everything of value would have been removed long ago. According to the "rule of the bush", any abandoned property in this wilderness is a legitimate target for scavenging.

Ruins of an abandoned house at Mamalilikulla on Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Ruins of an abandoned house at Mamalilikulla on Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina

It is fascinating to imagine how these islands which seem so isolated and empty now used to be bustling with permanent settlements -- Indian villages, homesteaders, fishermen. There is even a story of a Hawaiian prince who fled Hawaii to escape assassination by one of his own family, King Kamehameha. He ended up living incognito in a cabin the northern shore of Harbledown Island, assimilating well because he was dark-skinned like the natives.

View from the beach on Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
View from the beach on Village Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Tom and Andrew on the beach at Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Tom and Andrew during a quiet evening on the beach at Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina

Tom Sewid is a generous and gracious host and is quick to invite kayakers over to Compton Island. After spending a couple nights at Mound we took him up on his invitation. I didn't think Mound Island was a bad campsite, and fortunately it was not crowded when we were there, but the view from Compton is amazing! The beach has a sweeping view west over Blackfish Sound, where humpback whales surface, blow, and breach constantly. They showed up unexpectedly twelve years ago -- nearly 100 of them -- and have been returning for six months out of the year ever since. After we landed on Compton, Katya and I settled on the soft pebble beach and watched them for most of an entire afternoon while soaking up the sun.

View of humpback whale in Blackfish Sound from Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
View of humpback whale in Blackfish Sound from Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Darcy and Tom among the cabins and kayaks on Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Darcy and Tom among the cabins and kayaks on Compton Island. Photo © Katya Palladina

Tom shared with us his grand vision for Compton Island. Three small cabins resembling traditional longhouses have already been constructed, and he plans to build a total of five. His crew were unloading cedar planks from a barge the evening we arrived, and were busy building the next morning. The sides will be painted with with traditional salmon and orca whale designs. There will still be sites for tents, of course, but Tom expects that the demand for the insulated cabins in the typically cold and rainy weather of coastal British Columbia will be high. He says that burning a single candle inside a cabin can provide a lot of warmth. Later, totem poles will be carved and erected outside, and a large war canoe will be parked on the beach. He is arranging to be able to fly visitors in directly from Lake Union in Seattle by float plane. Compton Island promises to be a truly unique sea kayaking destination, a perfect base camp from which to explore the realm of the humpback whale and orca as well as the islands of the Broughton Archipelago.