Upper Columbia Tribes Carving Canoes from Ancient Cedars

The five reservations that make up the Upper Columbia United Tribes are bringing back dugout canoes—with members of all ages working on them.
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Enthusiasm and excitement are running high within the five reservations that make up the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) organization. Dugout canoes were historically invaluable to these tribes who relied on canoes for both travel and fishing. Much of that culture largely disappeared in the mid-1800s and few canoes have been created since that time. But that is changing.

The five tribes are now constructing dugout. People throughout the tribes are reacting positively to the project. As Coeur d’Alene tribal member Vincent Peone explained, “as far as cultural sensitivity, it’s very important to bring back the tradition of having dugout canoes.”

Peone said when the black robes arrived in the mid 1800s they wanted “all our dwellings and everything off the lake” and that was the last time canoes were made, with a few exceptions.

Massive western red cedar logs became available when the Quinault Nation began harvesting 80 acres of old growth commercial forest. Mark Gauthier, Forest Practices Coordinator for UCUT, explained that they were invited by the Quinault people to come watch the logging. “They let us hand pick the logs and sold the logs to us at cost. They also helped facilitate finding a logging truck that could handle the weight. It was generous on their behalf, but they were also excited that some of those logs were going to a traditional cultural use and be carved into canoes.”

These are huge, old trees ranging in age from about 300 to 700 years. The largest is now on the Coeur d’Alene reservation and was 45 feet long and weighed 28,000 pounds when transported. It was 5 feet 2 inches through at the butt. When the canoe is finished it will be 35 feet long, the walls will be 3/4ths of an inch thick, and it will likely weigh in the range of 500 to 700 pounds. The other canoes will be slightly smaller, but still measure 30 feet.

Each of the canoes will be of the shovel nose style, “a workhorse type of canoe” Jeff Jordan explained. Jordan is a Coeur d’Alene tribal member and fisheries department employee. Chain saws have been used, but most of the work has been with hand tools, several of which were crafted by Jordan himself.

Jack McNeel

Pictured, from left, are Jeff Jordan, Vincent Peone, Mark Gauthier, and John Zinser behind one of the canoes being built.

Zinser and Peone said the youth have been enthusiastic about the project. “It’s hard work, but they come out of it excited and ready to go,” Zinser said. It’s been worked on by students from grade school through college, as well as adults, and they estimate that several hundred people have worked on it for well over 300 hours.

Peone’s children are helping as well. “My 5-year-old, my two 7 year olds, my 17-year-old, they’re all excited about it. They want to see the end product. All my kids are asking ‘when do I get to ride in it?’”

“It’s been really cool to see this canoe take shape over the past couple of months,” said Coeur d’Alene Chairman Chief Allan. “I know everyone is itching to get it finished and out on the water. Our tribe’s roots are deeply tied to the water and to Lake Coeur d’Alene. It will really bring back an important aspect of our culture for today’s generation to experience.”

The Colville Confederated Tribes received two logs while the Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Kalispel, and Kootenai Tribe of Idaho will each carve one canoe. Once the canoes are complete, the plan is for each tribe to launch their canoe on their own reservation and proceed downstream toward the Columbia where all will join for a celebration. It may be held at Kettle Falls, which was a historically famous salmon fishing location. No date has been set as lots of work remains on the canoes, but this celebration will likely occur in mid-summer.