Joe Whittle · December 2, 2019

Return of Dugout Canoe Renews Canoe Culture Among Chief Joseph’s People

Canoe culture is one of the essential elements that kept relationships between the Nimiipu and other Indigenous peoples of the Columbia River watershed strong for thousands of years.

Glowing amber in the breaking rays of morning’s first light, a thin cloud of sweetgrass smoke drifted around a circle of people gathered on the shore of Wallowa Lake at sunrise on July 20th, 2018. They were there to participate in a ceremony to honor the completion of the first Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) dugout canoe to float on the waters of the Walwaama Nimiipuu homeland (in what is now Northeast Oregon) since Chief Joseph and the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce Tribe were extirpated from there during the Nez Perce War of 1877. 

The canoe was carved by Nez Perce tribal member Allen Pinkham Junior. His people have been carving canoes to cross Wallowa Lake to their (now extinct) sockeye salmon fishing grounds and mountain hunting grounds since the last ice age formed that lake. That is, until the War of 1877, when Hinmatoowyalahtqit (Chief Joseph) and his brother Ollokot led the Wallowa Band from their beloved mountain homeland on an 1100 mile running battle with the U.S. Army. They were attempting to escape to Canada and refuge among Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Lakota people, rather than submit to being confined on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, and giving up their culture and way of life. Caught in a surprise flank attack by cavalry in Montana roughly 40 miles from the Canadian border, they fought to a standstill. After three days of battle, and sustaining heartbreaking losses, Joseph agreed to terms and a cease-fire, uttering the now famous words, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever…”

The United States government didn’t keep the promises made on the battlefield to send the Wallowa Band to the reservation in Idaho to live with the other Nimiipuu bands who were already there when the war started. Instead, they were shipped by train in cattle cars to exile in Oklahoma. After several years of lobbying by allies in Washington D.C., they were finally allowed to leave Oklahoma and settle with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Northeast Washington. Eventually, a few who’d agreed to give up their culture and religion and convert to Christianity were allowed to go live with their relations on the Idaho reservation. Today, Nez Perce tribal members and descendants live on the Nez Perce and Colville reservations, and across the Columbia Plateau on the Yakama, Warm Springs, and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla reservations among the other Plateau Tribes with whom they’ve interrelated throughout human history in the region. 

Canoe culture is one of the essential elements that kept relationships between the Indigenous peoples of the Columbia River watershed strong for thousands of years. It connected Inland Northwest tribes like the Nimiipuu to peoples living on the Pacific coastline via canoe traffic up and down the rivers. To the Wanapum, or “River People”, the Columbia River is known as Chiawana, meaning “Big River”. Chiawana is the largest river in the Western Hemisphere that flows into the Pacific Ocean. Interior rivers like the Snake, Clearwater, and Grande Ronde connected inland peoples to it. But the canoe culture that facilitated those connections nearly disappeared for the Nimiipuu. After decades of forced assimilation policies, and things like the loss of salmon fisheries and tribal village sites along the Columbia and Snake rivers due to dams, it was no longer practiced by the tribe. Fortunately, the coastal and lower Chiawana peoples were able to retain their canoe cultures.

“I grew up near the coast, in Longview, Washington”, says Allen Pinkham Jr., speaking about his first exposure to canoe culture. “I used to watch my uncle Thomas Mosqueda, my mom’s younger brother, carve canoes when I was in grade school over there.” Allen’s mother is Yakama, Cowlitz, and Skokomish, and his father is Nez Perce, so he has coastal heritage as well as inland heritage. He says an important part of his motivation for the canoe project is to help bring awareness to the impact of dams on the salmon runs. “Despite all the efforts of the tribes and states and the federal government, the dams are destroying the chinook salmon runs and other runs”, Allen Jr., says. “The coastal tribes have a common cause with the tribes of the interior who want to bring awareness to the impact of the dams. Now, even the orcas in the ocean are being affected too, because they depend on the chinook runs.”

Many tribal members, like Allen Jr., believe that a full recovery of the Columbia River watershed will not happen until the dams are removed. He hopes that reviving the Nimiipuu canoe culture will help inspire the drive to finish the work of ecological and cultural recovery. “Maybe we won’t see it in our lifetime, but our grandkids might see the dams come down”, he says. “And if we continue this work, maybe we can make it happen sooner.” 

Allen Pinkham Jr., and his granddaughter Lily, test for leaks, buoyancy, and balance in the shallows of Wallowa Lake, after completion of the first stage of carving the canoe. Once it was determined it would float well and not pitch or roll, the carving process continued to finalize specific attributes and design.

Spending time around the canoe cultures of the coastal peoples and going to the intertribal Canoe Journey protocols and canoe festivals that happen annually in the Pacific Northwest inspired Allen Jr., to begin his project. “I said to myself, ‘Our tribe had a canoe culture! We caught salmon with canoes, we caught sturgeon, we hunted, and that’s how we got around before we acquired the horse’”. So he began to learn the proper way to make a Nimiipuu canoe. 

In addition to what he’d learned watching his uncle carve canoes while growing up, Allen Jr., spoke with Elders and culture bearers among the coastal and river tribes, and to his friends among the Northwest canoe families (Indigenous canoe clubs that carve and practice canoe culture intertribally or for a specific tribe). He also researched in old books written about the Columbia River canoe cultures, and with the Nez Perce National Historic Park, which had preserved a dozen original Nimiipuu canoes. Perhaps most importantly, though, he consulted with his father, Allen Pinkham Sr., an Elder, storyteller, culture bearer, and former Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe. The Pinkhams are direct descendants of Chief Red Bear, whose people took in Lewis and Clark and taught them how to build their own canoes to navigate down the Chiawana. Their family practiced Nimiipuu canoe culture for countless generations, and Allen Sr., keeps the stories of their history.

“The canoe carving on the coast hasn’t ever died”, says Allen Sr., “but here, it was kind of like a lost art.” The central location of the Nimiipuu homeland gave them access to a wide range of regions, cultures, and resources. In addition to downriver travel to the coast, they would travel east over the Continental Divide and out onto the plains of what is now Montana and the Yellowstone region to hunt buffalo and trade. Describing the diversity of what he calls “life sources” woven into their culture, Allen Sr., said, “We were mountain people, river people, buffalo people, canoe people, and later, horse people.” 

In and around their riverside homelands the primary means of travel was always by canoe, even after the arrival of the horse. Allen Sr., describes a type of long paddle that could be turned over and used for a poling device in the shallow riversides during upriver travel. He told a story about two Nimiipuu men who left the coast by canoe at the same time as Lewis and Clark did on horseback for their return journey, and arrived back in their homelands about 400 miles away at the same time as Lewis and Clark. Upriver canoe travel was as fast as horse travel. 

Allen Sr., tells stories about hunting deer by canoe. Runners or riders would flush deer into the rivers, and hunters would simply paddle out alongside them to deliver an instantaneous kill, then haul them into the canoe. They would also put torches on the end of canoes to fish for salmon at night, as the fish are drawn to the light. “In the old days if you lived near a river they would leave their canoes on the banks,” he says, “and if you needed to you could borrow one as long as you returned it. It was an unspoken rule that you could borrow things as long as you returned them. Even with cattle after we adopted cattle ranching; if somebody needed some beef they could go kill a cow and replace it sometime later. It was the same with horses. If a horse was out in a pasture you could borrow it and bring it back in a couple days. But that was common practice, and people knew things like that were going to happen.” 

There is a spirit of generosity, hospitality, gift giving, and cultural exchange that pervades among the Columbia Plateau and Northwest coastal tribes, and many other Indigenous cultures. That spirit is a part of the intertribal canoe protocols and gift giving “giveaway ceremonies” that still take place, as well as the subsistence practicality of historical traditions. It is that same spirit which led to the shoreline ceremony as the sun’s first rays reflected across the cobalt waters of Wallowa Lake, after Allen Jr., had completed his first canoe. He’d carved a 16 foot dugout from a ponderosa pine much like the ones growing along the shores of that lake today, many of which were standing there when Hinmatoowyalahtqit’s paddle cut its own track across those mountain waters. Tribal members and supporters from around the Northwest gathered in reverence that morning to witness the canoe’s maiden voyage. 

“When my friends among the canoe families said, ‘we’ll come out and see your canoe when it’s done’, even though it was said casually, I knew what it meant. It meant I would need to host them in the proper way”, explained Allen Jr., speaking of his preparation for the ceremony at Wallowa Lake. “I was so humbled and honored that they would make all that effort and take time to come all the way out there. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to prepare. Not only do I have to have that canoe ready, I’ve got to have a feast and a giveaway to honor my guests for attending.’” Members of the Warm Springs N’chi Wanapum Canoe Family and the Portland All Nations Canoe Family drove seven hours from the west side of Oregon with their 30 foot seagoing canoes in tow to honor the return of Nimiipuu canoe culture to the Walwaama homeland, and to paddle the length of Wallowa Lake for a protocol ceremony at the far shore. Over 100 people attended the event, counting paddlers and supporting onlookers.

The following photos capture some of the moments and narrative of that day: 

In the photo above, Allen Pinkham Sr., shares some of the history of his people with onlookers and canoe paddlers before the maiden voyage of his son’s dugout canoe. Behind him stands the 9600 foot summit of Chief Joseph Mountain. Chief Joseph’s Nimiipuu name, Hinmatoowyalahtqit, means, “Thunder traveling over the Mountains”.

The visiting canoes paddled six miles from the northern to the southern shore of Wallowa Lake, where a canoe protocol ceremony was held. This image shows the Portland All Nations canoe beginning its journey. The Portland All Nations Canoe Family’s stated mission is, “to preserve Indigenous culture by nurturing families and protecting water…through cross-generational community building, cultural strengthening, and connection to the environment.” Participating members that day included representatives from many Northwest tribes, as well as members of far-reaching tribes such as the Tlingit and Haida, Pamunky, Caddo, Delaware, Cherokee, Apache, Ojibwe, and others. 

Traditional protocols require a local canoe to paddle out and meet approaching visitors, so that both parties can investigate and greet each other. The formal maiden voyage of the Nimiipuu canoe was to escort the visiting canoes to shore. Allen Jr.’s, daughter, Christiane, paddled the finished dugout canoe out from the southern shore of Wallowa Lake to greet the N’chi Wanapum and Portland All Nations canoes. “A long time ago they didn’t always speak the same language, and they may have had previous encounters that weren’t so friendly. So they would be cautious,” said Allen Jr., “Sending someone of the female gender would show that we weren’t a war band. Feeding them was another way that we would show good intentions. We’re not gonna waste food on ya if we’re gonna kill ya later”, he added with a chuckle.

After introductions were made on the lake, the N’chi Wanapum paddlers rowed first toward the shore, then raised their paddles in unison as they slowed their landing and began calling out their introduction to a party of Elders waiting on the shoreline. 

Standing among a group of Elders gathered on the southern shore of Wallowa Lake to welcome the visiting canoes, matriarch Elder, Tessie Williams, introduced her homeland to the visitors like she was introducing an important person among the tribe. She listed off ecological attributes of the region as one would list the character traits of a much-loved relative, naming many of the fish, animals, plants, roots, berries, and medicines that have ensured her people could thrive with that land for countless millennia. Those “life sources” are an essential part of the identity of her people. Chief Joseph once said, “The earth and myself are of one mind. The measure of the land and the measure of our bodies are the same.” This is the relationship Tessie described that day, as both an introduction to the land, and to its People. The Wallowa Lake southern shore and river inlet was the primary spawning grounds of the now extinct sockeye salmon run that once returned there annually more than 30,000 strong. Stories say they ran so thick that Nimiipuu women had their dogs trained to fetch them from the river and deliver them to waiting matriarchs who would clean and prep them in the lakeside meadows.

Cristiane formally re-introduced herself back to her homeland shores and people after escorting the visiting canoes into shore. “Being on that beautiful water was very moving and uplifting,” she says. “I felt honored that my dad choose me. It was one of the most poignant moments in my life, which I will never forget. It felt energizing, and nearly brought me to tears that we are making these steps. Sometimes the pressure feels too much that my generation and my dad’s have to juggle the skills of our modern society along with our old traditions. But hearing my grandpa’s words to go out and ‘do something for your people’, inspired me. Just do something, even if it’s one thing you practice and hone your skills at, at least you took initiative to grow as an individual. I believe that is how we will keep our culture and traditions alive.” 

“I carry the name Xaxaats Atway (Grizzly Bear Woman), which my great grandma Sue Seven did before me. My English name is Eva Angus. I am a descendant of Ollokot, and come from the Wallowa Band Nimiipuu, Cayuse, Pamunky, and Tlingit and Haida peoples. I began my involvement with Portland All Nations Canoe Family in my early teen years. Being in Portland, it’s difficult to find a sense of community as a Native youth. So I thought of the canoe family as my own. It really helped me find a sense of belonging and helped me find my own voice. Being out on the canoe has always made me feel good, like a blanket of calm falling over me. My mind is clear while out on the water, and my heart is in the right place. I think that these feelings come through because it’s what my ancestors did in their time. I remember crying because I knew our ancestors were happy knowing we were gathered there at Wallowa Lake. When we finally got in our canoes and launched, looking down you could see straight to the rocks on the floor of the lake, and in the sky the sun had just risen up over the mountains. I was praying the whole pull over to the other end. I said thanks to the water for calling us home in this way, and for helping us remember our ways. It made me really hopeful and excited for the future because this is only the beginning of a cultural resurgence.” -Xaxaats Atway, Grizzly Bear Woman [Pictured in the photo above facing the camera and hugging another member of her canoe family].

Allen Pinkham Jr., pulls the 16 foot dugout canoe onto shore at the Wallowa Lake Marina. It was carved specifically for Wallowa Lake. His next canoe will be a 30 foot ponderosa dugout. He hopes to eventually carve one worthy of big river and sea travel. Dugout canoes would be carved differently for different purposes. Some variations included the angle of the bow and stern depending on the type of water it would navigate, and platforms on the ends for fishing and disembarking on shore without stepping in water. Other traditional techniques are applied during the canoe-making process. For instance, the relationship between the tree and the water has to be understood, because they have their own sovereign way of relating with each other. Before any carving is done the log must be floated in the water to see which way it will pitch, roll and settle. Then, the water line is marked to show which side is the top of the canoe. If this process is ignored a canoe might capsize on its first voyage. Allen Sr., told a story about how Lewis and Clark had rushed their canoe carving process, and as a result several of their canoes capsized or swamped themselves within minutes of setting out on the river toward the Pacific.  

Attendees and paddlers gathered in the Wallowa Lake State Park at the giveaway ceremony that was held after the canoe protocols and feast. Speaking of the cultural protocols of generosity and sustainability, Allen Jr., says, “You only take what you need, you don’t waste what you use, and you don’t exploit it for personal gain, whether it’s power or resources that you’re gathering. It’s gotta be for a greater cause-for your community, or for the land itself. We have to strive to maintain that balance. The salmon were a part of that. They were at the base of a cycle of resources and renewal, and to upset that balance upsets a lot of other things. Perhaps we won’t get back to 100% of what it was, but we can try to get close to it. Because if things continue the way they are, eventually we’ll see the extinction of a number of species, not just the salmon, but killer whales, and others.” He believes that reviving canoe culture and continuing to practice traditions like giveaway ceremonies represents a model of sustainable lifeway that can guide humanity back from a catastrophic course. “The thing that I would like to see is that we retain all those values and traditions that we always had”, says Allen Sr., “we may not actually still practice some of those things we did 300 years ago, but the feeling and intent, and the traditional meaning of those things, we can revive; which is truth, justice, and fair play.” 

Joe Whittle
Joe Whittle

Joe Whittle is a freelance photographer and writer living in unceded Nez Perce territory, in Joseph, OR. He is an enrolled tribal member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and a descendant of the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma. His photographs and writing can be found in publications such as The Guardian, Alpinist Magazine, Outside Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, National Geographic Voices Blog, Huffington Post, and others. You can follow his work on Instagram @joewhittlephotography and at www.joewhittlephotography.com.

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