Wednesday, January 17, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Canoeists' philosophy is universal

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Don’t be surprised if a canoe with a crew of Native American paddlers pops up in Hawaiian waters. A team of Indians from the Pacific Northwest has already competed against Australians and Fijians.

Steve Robinson of Seattle, a member of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said 50 canoes from the region between Alaska and California met for the Paddle to Seattle in 1989.

Since then, the canoe has gained steadily in popularity there, he said.

Willie Jones, chairman of the Lummi Nation at Bellingham, Wash., just south of the Canadian border, said the Lummis have a dozen racing canoes in their tribal shed.

"We race once a week after the weather warms up in May," he said. "After August, it’s too cold."

Robinson and Jones were in Our Honolulu for a nationwide gathering of tribal leaders to plan legislative strategy for Native American priorities.

While their canoes have names like Lone Wolf and Point Grey, their paddling philosophy is universal: "To pull together in a canoe, this is the symbol of our feelings as a people."

The frustrations sound familiar, too. "A serious problem now is a shortage of cedar logs," said Robinson. "The lumber industry has wiped out the cedar."

Jones said the Lummis negotiate with the National Park Service for logs big enough to carve into canoes up to 50 feet long.

These big canoes, using for racing, have neither sails nor outriggers. They’re long and low, carved from half of a split log without the high bows you see in pictures of ancient Northwest Indian canoes, and carry 11 paddlers.

"The cost of a war canoe depends on its history — whether it’s proven, maybe $10,000-$12,000," said Jones. "If you have one built from a new log it might cost $8,000 but you don’t know what you’re getting."

Several young men in the tribe had become canoe carvers. "We haven’t lost the art but we’ve lost the wood," Jones explained.

Molded plywood isn’t allowed: "To this day we have to use cedar logs." However, to make canoes lighter and faster, Indian builders carve out more wood and strengthen the hull with a coat of epoxy. Laminated paddles make canoes go faster.

Jones said he has raced in canoes since 1956 and became a coach 30 years ago when the sport was dying out.

"The young people came to me and asked me to be skipper," he said. "At that time, they went to the white man’s school where they didn’t recognize canoe paddling as recreation.

"We worked hard and got our own school on the reservation, kindergarten through junior college, and now canoe paddling is flourishing."

Robinson is chairman of the annual Salmon Homecoming in Seattle.

Call in your story to Bob Krauss at 525-8073.

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