Native Voices: Reclaiming a Culture through the Traditional Canoe
Interview with Gary Dorr
(In conjunction with Blooming Culture: The Canoe as a Vessel for Exploring Cultures)
Gary Dorr is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and Chairman of The River Warrior Society. Members of the fourth-grade crew interviewed him about his involvement in the resurgence of the traditional canoe. This is the interview transcript.
What is your full name and where are you from?
My English name is Gary Dorr. My real name is Standing Red Bear. I live in Craigmont, Idaho on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.
Many Tribes throughout the region have not made a canoe in many years and they are starting to build canoes again. Why is this happening now?
The reason why we are building canoes again, or why we are going back to it, is to reclaim part of our culture. It comes at a time when the culture and the environment are under attack from global warming threats, from pollution. So it makes sense for us to reclaim our authority over the water. And the best way to do that is in the traditional way because our treaties are traditional, traditional words for our ancestors. So we are going back to those words in a good way, the way we would have done it back then with a traditional canoe. Whether it is Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone-Bannock, Paiute, Standing Rock, Rose Bud, or all the coastal tribes, including the Nez Perce, we are all reasserting our authority on the water in a traditional way. So that is why it is coming back.
What types of canoes has your tribe built in the past and what were they used for?
In the past we have done dugout canoes and sometimes we used to burn them out instead of carve them out. I like to tell people that they were our grocery cart, our family car, our post office, and our hunting rigs. We would take them on the river and we would go across the river. Sometimes we’d go just right across the river to go to the other side to gather roots. Sometimes we would take them fishing, even at night time using lanterns with fire, and we would spear fish from it. The other thing we would do is to take them out to lay nets in the water. And we would go all the way to the ocean to gather different shells, to get to where the other fisherman are, and to meet with our other relatives on the coast. We would bring messages back, so that is why the canoe was our post office. And our grocery cart because we would go over and get berries or other roots. It was our hunting rig because before we had trucks we would go hunting in the canoes and gather things.
What happened to the canoes your ancestors made?
Well a lot of different theories on that. Some people say that some people burned them and others say that they buried them in the mud because when the missionaries came here they wanted to get rid of all that culture. So to save it we either burned it ourselves or we buried it in the mud and lakes. We do have four canoes that were made by some Nez Perce elders back in 1913, or somewhere around there. They are in our museum, not on display, but in a separate warehouse. So those are the oldest canoes and the models that we are working off of to make our canoes today.
Do you know why your tribe stopped building canoes?
Again, there are a couple of different theories about why we stopped building canoes and that was probably the missionary influence because when they made the Indian Reservations they wanted us to become farmers. And we used to go from Oregon all the way to Montana, and to Washington, all over the place. We would go with the seasons to different camps. We didn’t stay in on place like a farm house to farm. So in order to keep us doing that they took our horses, they burned down our wickiups and our tipis, and took our boats. They made those things bad to use so we would stay in one spot and become farmers.
Why after so long did you decide to bring the traditional canoe back?
Well we have been trying to bring our language back for years and years and years, and there are quite a few people who are taking our language classes. The other part of that is actually using the language. When we go to ceremonies we use the language. When we go root digging some of the women have songs that they sing when they are digging the roots. So this is just another way for us to expand our culture. A new use for our language is to build this canoe. And we wanted our children to experience this again because people have tried it in the past. I guess abut 1990 someone tried, but they didn’t finish the canoe. So we are going further than they have. It is mainly for our children, so that they can regain that skill.
What is the importance of the traditional canoe for you and your tribe?
It is a symbol. It is a symbol of living with the land. There is nothing man made in the dugout canoe. The paddles are from trees. The canoe is from trees. There is no plastic, no glass, none of that. It takes people to build that. So the importance is gaining our culture and passing it on to our children, also because the children helping us build our canoe have never been in a dugout canoe. So they are going to be the first Nez Perce children in over 113 years to sit in a dugout canoe. It is a big part of our culture because we are surrounded by rivers – the Clearwater, The Salmon, The Snake, The Columbia, The Palouse, all these different rivers and yet we don’t have any canoes left. We want our children to have that back. This is basically our gift to our children and that is why it is important to us.
Is it hard to bring back the canoe, and if so, why?
It is a little bit hard because we don’t have all day to do it. We meet once a week for about three hours so it has taken us a long time. Part of having that canoe sitting exposed for so long is that it’s curing. And as it curing, it is drying out, and it is starting to crack. Because we haven’t sealed it up, because we haven’t finished carving it. So I went through and I sealed what was left on the outside and that helped to stop the cracking. We put some butterfly braces in there along the cracks to keep it from separating more. It is hard with everybody’s work schedule. We are dealing with a traditional craft that was built in three or four days and we are only there for a couple of hours a week, so it has taken us almost a year to get this done. And that is because we are taking a traditional craft and we are combining it with today’s modern work environment and work schedule.
Why did you name your canoe New Medicine?
It is named New Medicine because to us we’ve lost this way. Let me explain what medicine is. Medicine can be words. Medicine can be actual roots, plants, or food. Water is medicine. Prayers are medicine. Giving someone a hug is medicine. You have a good effect and a bad effect and medicine is that effect. So when we built this canoe it is a new medicine to us because none of us have built a canoe in 113 years. To us it is new, but it is actually an old medicine that we are bringing forward. It has always been there for thousands of years, but for us, for me, it is new. So that is why we called it New Medicine.
What is the importance in your tribe to have kids help make canoes or paddles?
It is very important because we are making mistakes on our canoe, but our children are there so next time we are going to teach them a better way of making a canoe. What has happened is we have families now that are coming to the canoe. We have two families that are coming there with their children. My dream is for those people to get a tree in their yard and start building their own family canoe. When they do that, for the children it just becomes natural. Just like every day you brush your teeth, it is a natural thing when you get up in the morning. For children when they want to go camping and go up in the mountains. If they want to come back the easy way, they will find a tree, chop it down and make a canoe. That is how simple the knowledge should be.
How special is it that the kids are helping you?
I think it is really special because children are more pure than we are. When you are born, you are the most pure you are ever going to be. When you are older, you are exposed to things, you have anger, jealousy and all these things that can come the older you get. When you are young, you don’t have all of that. You are just happy. So that brings a good energy to the site where we are building the canoe. They have prayed with the canoe, so I think that is the most important thing. This canoe is a ceremony. Even before we started building it we went into our sweat lodge and prayed for their canoe to come to us. On that day we started the ceremony, and our children are part of that ceremony.
Did the tradition of building a canoe, and the knowledge of how to build it, fade from your mind as the years passed that you didn’t build the traditional canoe?
Yeah it did. For example, when we were here in 1805, when Lewis and Clark first got here. When we sent them down the river, in ten days we built five canoes for them. Ten days. So that’s two days per canoe. That is just as natural as getting up and brushing your teeth. But for us it has taken a year to build. We are getting better at it, but it is something we have to learn. You are not going to learn it until you actually do it. That is why we started to do it, because there is no other way to learn it. You can read it in a book, but until you swing and axe and start carving, until the wood starts to split, you don’t know how to handle that. That is why we are doing it.
What is the importance of carving paddles?
The importance of carving paddles as it was explained to me is that because we worked on these canoes very quickly in three or four days there was a lot of carving going on. So to keep the children from getting hurt while we were swinging axes, we let them carve the paddles. That gave them the hand skills to use a knife, carving tools, whatever we used to carve the canoe to carve the paddle. It kept the children busy while we were doing the heavy work with the log.
What do paddles mean to you in your tribe?
The paddles for us mean the children’s independence. Once we had these small canoes, the children wouldn’t be able to do it unless they had paddles. In order to use the canoe you had to have your own paddles. That makes you independent. And it was the same thing for the people. Sometimes the women had smaller canoes to go across the river. If there canoes were small enough they could use their hands, but if not, they had to have a paddle. So you can have the nicest canoe in the world, but if you don’t have a paddle you aren’t going to be able to go anywhere. So it was about independence.
Historically how long did it take to make a paddle?
Well usually we could make a paddle in maybe a day. For us, the Nimi´ipuu, the Nez Perce, our canoes and our paddles were not fancy. They didn’t look like a piece of art. They were clunky. As long as they worked that was all we cared about. We didn’t put drawings on them. Today we do just because it’s something special for us. But in the past, way back in the day, we built canoes in two days.
What are the steps to making a paddle in your tribe?
First you have to draw it out. The thing with paddles is that normally the children built them because we did a lot of heavy work with the logs. So to keep the children safe while we were working on the canoe the children would be the ones working on the paddles. So we’d trace it out and just let them carve away with knives or sharp points.
With your tribe, traditionally what kinds of shapes and uses did your paddles have?
Normally the first person in the canoe has a pointed paddle that is maybe a little bit skinnier. The reason is that when we pull into shore the first person digs that addle into the dirt, into the shore, and holds the canoe while everyone else gets out. So everyone else should have a rounded paddle. The person in the very back is the one steering the canoe. They might have a little bit longer and thicker paddle because they are pushing and pulling and directing that canoe on a straight line.
Why do you make paddles?
I actually haven’t made a paddle yet. I had someone give me a paddle so I didn’t have to build mine. The reason why we make paddles is when you’re in a canoe, it’s really neat, and you will see this once you are in your canoe, you lay your paddles across the canoe and you can go like a drum beat and sing songs. When you are all going at the same time, that expresses unity. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. You can all start on different beats, but if you do it long enough you will find that everybody gets the same beat. It’s a natural thing and we know that. That’s why we do it, to get everybody right in the same mind and get everybody unfied.
Do you build new paddles every time you build a canoe?
I don’t know about every time because this is our first canoe that we have built. We are building a bunch of paddles though. Generally, if you carve your own paddle that goes home with you. We always place the paddle part in the water, but when we lean it up against the wall, we always place that end up and the handle is what touches the floor. And that is just one thing we have learned from our elders. We might have to build paddles again because some of them might break. I think that some people have built their paddle a little bit too thin and when we get on the shore the first paddle on the front of the canoe is always pointed. And the reason for that is when we pull into shore that person digs that paddle into the sand and the dirt and holds the canoe. So that paddle probably will break, because we are down there on the river with e bunch of rocks. So we build them whenever we need them.
Is there anything else that you want us to know about paddles?
The only other thing I want you to know about paddles is to make sure that you guys practice with them on the land first, so that you are all stroking with them at the same time. Because you’re not all on the right side, you’re not all on the left side. So one person will be on the right side, the next person up on the left side, the next person up on the right side, the next person up on the left side. So when you stand in two lines what happens is that the first person in the front of the canoe, when they raise their paddle, everybody on that side behind them raises their paddle, and that way they stroke at the same time. So the person in the front is the one who controls the speed at which you guys are paddling. If you are on the left side you watch the person in front of you, and that person watches the person in front of them, all the way to the front of the canoe. So the person in the front, as soon as they start stroking, everybody on the left side should be stroking at the same time. Same thing on the right side. You watch the person in front of you, they watch the person in front of them, and so on all the way to the front. So you are not clunking paddles, and you’re all going at the same time. That is something you can practice today. Even though your paddles aren’t done, you can practice getting up in two lines, one on the right side and one on the left side, and watch the person in front of you, all the way to the front. That’s so you have more power and so you’re not clunking paddles or mashing anyone’s fingers.
Is there anything about paddles and your tribe specifically that you want the world to know?
We started making our dugout 13 months ago. We started in a ceremony in a sweat lodge and we prayed for this to come in a good way and for everybody to be safe. Building the canoe is part of our ceremony, so our ceremony has been going for 13 months now. When we put the canoe and paddles into the water, it is also a ceremony because we want the Snake River dams to be breached. We have some goals to get those dams out. So we are taking these canoes as a form of prayer. For the paddlers, every stroke, every time they put their paddle in, they are making a prayer. So we say “every pull a prayer.” We are going to break that down. We are going to protect the water. We are going to restore the salmon. Please help us. So that’s probably the difference between just going out recreational boating and a traditional canoe that we’re doing.
To learn more about Gary and the River Warrior Society, visit https://riverwarriorsociety.org.