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Inland NW tribal artists carve canoes at Spokane museum

Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
Devon Peone uses a hand tool called a scorp to work on the bottom of one canoe.

They're reshaping two old growth trees cut in Pend Oreille County.

Five Inland Northwest Native tribes are reviving the age-old tradition of dugout canoe carving.

At Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, artists such as Devon Peone have begun the process of reshaping two huge cedar logs.

“We’ve already leveled off our bottom, so now we’re trying to make a right-side cut and a left-side cut all the way down alongside the bottom and those are called our facets," he said.

Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
Tribal artists measure the log to determine where they want to begin cutting for the dugout portion of the canoe.

Others are using levels and measuring tools to determine where to begin cutting the dugout portion.

“There actually is a lot of measuring, a lot of math involved," said Leanne Campbell from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. She's an artist herself, but for this project, she’s a guide who explains to museum patrons the tradition and process of creating a canoe.

“Get it roughed out with some of the larger power tools, like the chainsaws and some power sanders. But, for the most part, a lot of this project is done by hand with the hand tools," she said.

These logs came from old growth trees in the area around Newport, Washington. They’re about 120 years old and the carving began in mid-March. Campbell says the artists will work about two days a week and finish around Memorial Day.

For hundreds of years, Inland Northwest tribes built canoes to paddle to their traditional fishing grounds, but dams stopped the yearly salmon migration.

“We lost a ton of life here in the river, life that could have been feeding this whole city and cities across the world," Devon Peone said.

In 2015, the five tribes, collectively as the Upper Columbia United Tribes, revived the canoe tradition. Members traveled to western Washington to buy several huge old growth logs from the Quinault Tribe, which was logging a portion of its land. Peone says they trucked them back to eastern Washington and invited an expert to teach them the lost art.

“He traveled to each reservation and he would spend time with each tribe and each community, teaching them how to carve a canoe and from that six-to-eight-month time span, from 2015 to 2016, we completed it and then we made our initial voyage to pray for salmon," he said.

Leanne Campbell says many of those who worked on those canoes are back leading this project.

Doug Nadvornick/Spokane Public Radio
The canoe carving site is in the amphitheater adjacent to Spokane's Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

One of the new vessels will go to the tribes, the other to the museum to join its collection, says executive director Wes Jessup.

“One of the things I’m thrilled about is the museum’s canoe will actually be used on the river. As a museum person who is protective of collections, that’s very unusual to send things out, but we’re finding a pathway to do that. We believe that this is a canoe we’ll, hopefully, be able to take out every year," Jessup said.

“We’re not really the ones telling these stories. We’re a venue. We’re hosting and we’re interested and excited about sharing the knowledge of the tribes with our community and our visitors," he said.

This project comes at a time when UCUT has begun to reintroduce Native salmon back to the Inland rivers, including recently to the Spokane River.

“I want salmon to come home. This is salmon’s home and it has a right to come back here," Peone said.

“We just take so much pride in the workmanship that’s going on here, take pride in the finished result. We take pride in that reconnection to the canoe culture, which helps us with the reconnection to our landscape and our waterways, so this is absolutely very important work for us," Campbell said.

The canoe carving project is an addendum to the museum’s current exhibit of traditional canoes, which will be displayed through mid-August.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.