PORTLAND, Ore. - Should the world of pre-fab houses and store-bought tools
take a dive, at least one man on the Oregon coast will know how to get
folks in out of the rain. Working with wood and stone is in Don Day's
blood, and the University of Oregon has given him its blessing. Day
completed a bachelor's degree in Anthropology in 2003, and now he's working
in an interdisciplinary master's program on a thesis, the centerpiece of
which will be the traditional construction of a cedar longhouse using
A member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon, Day points to
both his heritage and his 18 years in the woods as a logger for
inspiration. "I have the woods knowledge. Knowledge of Western red cedar,"
Day said. "And my ancestors - the Kalapuya people, a band that were here in
the Willamette Valley - that's what they used for their houses, Western red
Day's interdisciplinary program draws from the fields of anthropology,
archaeology, geology and linguistics. "What's taken place since the arrival
of the white man is we've lost ground to Safeway parking lots and building
sites. The resting places of my ancestors have been disturbed with total
disregard. Our heritage and history is gone, and there's not too many
Native American archaeologist or anthropologists that have an interest in
it," Day said. "I decided that if I was going to deal with these non-Indian
anthropologists and archaeologists, I needed to know something about the
There's a regretful tone in Day's voice when he speaks of how he learned
primitive wood and stone technologies. "A white person had to teach me,"
Day said. "I'm sorry that there's not an elder in my tribe that knows how
to do this." But he recovers his sense of humor quickly. "Actually I
thought it was cool that a white man knew how to do things. And still,
every once in a while I'll get a call: 'I've got some new rock. Come and
visit. Bring your tools and come down.'"
Things are changing, though, as elders like Don Day educate themselves
about ancient arts. "Over the past 10 to 15 years, we've been progressing
more toward identification. Now people are saying things like 'oh these
Native people, they lived here 11,000 years in harmony with the salmon as
Day manufactures his own tools, the wooden wedges and mallets needed to
split logs into planks. He also does flint knapping where he works with
obsidian and chirt and other stones to make blades and hatchets. "I'm into
primitive technologies," he said. "When I went up to Haidi Gwaii, B.C. to
study building from them, they were just using hammers and saws and nails.
I told them that 'before the sun goes down, I'll show you how to do it the
Day pointed out that not all types of cedar split successfully and that
even in the Lewis and Clark journals, Western red cedar is mentioned as
being the tree of choice for houses. Even after Day's U.S. Forestry Service
connections in the Willamette National Forest let him know about a "dead
and down" cedar, he still has to see if the particular log will work.
"Reading cedar is like reading the lines you put on paper. Like if you kind
of lean off with your handwriting. I look for a straight grain to see if I
can split a 20 foot beam out of a log. Or some planks. If the tree looks
twisted or has too many knots you're going to have problems. Before you
know it you're breaking mallets and wedges and things."
On the Grand Ronde reservation, the results of Day's interests will soon
become apparent. In conjunction with his appointed position on the tribe's
cultural committee, Day has been teaching and working with a team of tribal
members to gather materials for a traditional-style longhouse. "The tribe
has decided to build a split plank house and we are in the process of
securing all the timber now for the 50 by 60 foot house that will be 12 to
14 feet in the center at the ridge pole."
A long-house of red cedar built from handmade tools with ancient methods is
a far cry from the prefab buildings most Northwest tribes currently hold
their ceremonies in. That Don Day's Grand Ronde tribe and the University of
Oregon support his work bodes well for a continuing revival of traditional
arts. So well, that on a rainy winter afternoon, it's almost possible hear
the crack of the logs opening up under the wedges and mallets of the men
all around the region. And get a deep breath full of fresh red cedar.