Educating as if Survival Matters
Nancy M Trautmann Michael P Gilmore
BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 5, 1 May 2018, Pages 324–326, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy026
22 March 2018
ver the past 40 years, environmental educators throughout the world have been aiming to motivate and empower students to work toward a sustainable future, but we are far from having achieved this goal. Urgency is evident in the warning issued by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries: “to prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual… Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home” (Ripple et al. 2017).
In this tumultuous era of ecocatastrophes, we need every child to grow up caring deeply about how to live sustainably on our planet. We need some to become leaders and all to become environmentally minded citizens and informed voters. Going beyond buying greener products and aiming for energy efficiency, we must find ways to balance human well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental quality. These three overlapping goals form the “triple bottom line,” aiming to protect the natural environment while ensuring economic vitality and the health of human communities. This is the basis for sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Strong economies of course are vital, but they cannot endure at the expense of vibrant human societies and a healthy environment.
Within the formal K–12 setting, a primary hurdle in teaching for sustainability is the need to meaningfully address environmental issues within the constraints of established courses and curricular mandates. In the United States, for example, the Next Generation Science Standards designate science learning outcomes for grades K–12 (NGSS 2013). These standards misrepresent sustainability challenges by portraying them as affecting all humans equally, overlooking the substantial environmental justice issues evident within the United States and throughout the world. Another oversight is that these standards portray environmental issues as solvable through the application of science and technology, neglecting the potential roles of other sources of knowledge (Feinstein and Kirchgasler 2015).
One might argue that K–12 students are too young to tackle looming environmental issues. However, they are proving up to the challenge, such as through project-based learning in which they explore issues and pose potential solutions. This may involve designing and conducting scientific investigations, with the possibility of participating in citizen science. Case-study research into teen involvement in community-based citizen science both in and out of school settings revealed that the participants developed various degrees of environmental science agency. Reaching beyond understanding of environmental science and inquiry practices, this term’s definition also includes confidence in one’s ability to take positive stewardship actions (Ballard et al. 2017). The study concluded that the development of environmental science agency depended on involving teens in projects that included these three factors: investigating complex social–ecological systems with human dimensions, ensuring rigorous data collection, and disseminating scientific findings to authentic external audiences. Educators interested in undertaking such endeavors can make use of free resources, including an ever-growing compendium of lesson plans for use with citizen-science projects (SciStarter 2018) and a downloadable curriculum that leads students through the processes of designing and conducting their own investigations, especially those inspired by outdoor observations and participation in citizen science (Fee 2015).
We need to provide opportunities for students to investigate environmental issues, collect and analyze data, and understand the role of science in making informed decisions. But sustainability challenges will not be resolved through scientific approaches alone. Students also need opportunities to connect deeply with people from drastically different cultures and think deeply about their own lifestyles, goals, and assumptions. As faculty members of the Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest, we have had the privilege of accompanying groups of US teachers through 10-day expeditions in the Peruvian Amazon. Last summer, we asked Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, leader of a small indigenous group living deep in the rainforest, for his view of sustainability. Sebastián responded that he and his community are one with the forest—it is their mother, providing life and wholeness. Reflecting on the changes occurring at an accelerating rate even in remote rainforest communities, Sebastián went on to state that his greatest wish is for his descendants to forever have the opportunity to continue living at one with their natural surroundings (Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, Maijuna Community Leader, Sucusari, Peru, personal communication, 18 July 2017). After decades of struggle during which their rainforest resources were devastated by outside loggers and hunters (Gilmore 2010), this indigenous group has regained control over their ancestral lands and the power to enact community-based conservation practices. Their efforts provide compelling examples of how people (no matter how few in number and how marginalized) can effect positive change.
In collaboration with leaders of Sebastián’s remote Peruvian community and a nongovernmental organization with a long history of working in the area, US educators are creating educational resources designed to instill this same sense of responsibility in children growing up without such direct connections to nature. Rather than developing a sense of entitlement to ecologically unsustainable ways of life, we need children to build close relationships with the natural world, empathy for people with different ways of life, and a sense of responsibility to build a better tomorrow. Although the Amazon rainforest is a common topic in K–12 and undergraduate curricula, typically it is addressed through textbook readings. Instead, we are working to engage students in grappling with complex real-world issues related to resource use, human rights, and conservation needs. This is accomplished through exploration of questions such as the following: (a) How do indigenous cultures view, interact with, and perceive their role in the natural world, and what can we learn from them? (b) How do our lives influence the sustainability of the rainforest and the livelihoods of the people who live there? (c) Why is the Amazon important to us, no matter where we live? (d) How does this relate to the triple-bottom-line goal of balancing social well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental protection?
Investigating the Amazon’s impacts on global weather patterns, water cycling, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity leads students to see that the triple bottom line transcends cultures and speaks to our global need for a sustainable future for humans and the environment throughout the world. Tracing the origin of popular products such as cocoa and palm oil, they investigate ways to participate in conservation initiatives aiming for ecological sustainability both at home and in the Amazon.
Another way to address global issues is to have students calculate the ecological footprint attributable to their lifestyles, leading into consideration of humankind vastly overshooting Earth’s ability to regenerate the resources and services on which our lives depend. In 2017, August 2 was determined to be the date on which humanity had overshot Earth’s regenerative capacity for the year because of unsustainable levels of fishing, deforestation, and carbon dioxide emissions (Earth Overshoot Day 2017). The fact that this occurs earlier each year is a stark reminder of our ever-diminishing ability to sustain current lifestyles. And as is continually illustrated in news of climate disasters, human societies with small ecological footprints can be tragically vulnerable to such calamities (e.g., Kristof 2018).
Engaged in such activities, students in affluent settings may end up deriving solutions that shake the very tenet of the neoliberal capitalistic societies in which they live. To what extent should students be encouraged to challenge the injustices and entitlements on which world economies currently are based, such as by seeking ways to transform the incentive structures under which business and government decisions currently are made? Should they be asked to envision ways of overturning the unsustainable ways in which modern societies deplete resources, emit carbon dioxide, and destroy the habitats needed to support diverse forms of life on Earth?
Anyone who gives serious consideration to the environmental degradation and social-injustice issues in today’s world faces the risk of sinking into depression at the thought of a hopeless future. What can we possibly accomplish that will not simply be too little, too late? Reflecting on this inherent tension, Jon Foley (2016) stated, “If you’re awake and alive in the twenty-first century, with even an ounce of empathy, your heart and mind are going to be torn asunder. I’m sorry about that, but it’s unavoidable — unless you simply shut down and turn your back on the world. For me, the only solution is found in the space between awe and anguish, and between joy and despair. There, in the tension between two worlds, lies the place we just might find ourselves and our life’s work.”
Education for sustainability must build on this creative tension, capturing students’ attention while inspiring them to become forces for positive change.
Collaboration with the Maijuna is made possible through work of the OnePlanet nonprofit organization (https://www.oneplanet-ngo.org) and Amazon Rainforest Workshops (http://amazonworkshops.com).
Nancy Trautmann was supported through a fellowship with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany, to develop curricular resources that highlight the Maijuna to inspire U.S. youth to care about conservation issues at home and abroad.
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Gilmore MP. 2010. The Maijuna: Past, present, and future . 226–233 in Gilmore MP, Vriesendorp C,Alverson WS, del CampoÁ, von MayR, WongCL, OchoaSR, eds. Perú: Maijuna. The Field Museum.
KristofN.2018. Swallowed by the sea. New York Times. (23 January 2018 ; www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/opinion/sunday/climate-change-bangladesh.html)
[NGSS] Next Generation Science Standards. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. NGSS. (10 October 2017; www.nextgenscience.org)
Ripple WJ et al. 2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice. BioScience
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[WCED] World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future . Oxford University Press.
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
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Canoes and other forms of human powered watercraft have been utilized by human beings all around the world since time immemorial. For this reason, the study of canoes can serve as a gateway to analyze, compare and learn from the world’s cultures and the unique histories therein.
However, our education systems struggle to connect with students’ lived experiences in ways that honor their home culture and engage in ways that are greater than the sum of their parts. Decontextualized educational experiences have shown to be problematic within the formal education system. Moreover, in our current climate of high stakes testing and curriculum reforms that fail to account for the diversity within contexts of education, students are left listless towards schooling that ineffectively attaches to anything meaningful in their lives. Each community and regional context affords seemingly endless opportunities for connecting curriculum to on the ground issues that are meaningful and relevant to students’ lives.
In this article, we are going to tell the story of how a David Thompson-style canoe served as the curricular centerpiece for a 4th grade learning expedition that explored the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history.
alouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS) is a public, K-8 school located in the community of Moscow, Idaho. Moscow has approximately 25,000 residents and is the home of the University of Idaho. Within Moscow there are multiple K-8 schools including two public charter schools. PPCS being one, has approximately 120 students in grades K-8. PPCS espouses the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, which will be discussed below. PPCS students experience two learning expeditions each year in grades K-5 and three per year in grades 6-8. Some examples of expedition topics are: historic buildings in the community, how plants grow and their many uses, regional water conservation, geology of the region, human rights with immigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the sixth mass extinction, and the giant Palouse earthworm, to name just a few.
The EL approach has its roots in Outward Bound and began in 1992 (Cousins, 2000). EL can be traced back to Kurt Hahn and some of his progressive boarding school curriculum that led to the forming of Outward Bound as early as 1933. The EL model is based on ten design principles that guide the development and implementation of learning expeditions. The ten principles emphasize self-knowledge, caring and collaborating with others, active engagement in the natural world, and active learning based on the whole person (Expeditionary Learning, 2011). Teachers within EL schools work to develop learning expeditions that integrate educational standards across disciplines and leverage resources within the local and regional communities to enhance the student experience by showing that there is a rhyme and reason to the educational activities that students are engaged in.
The 4th grade class at PPCS embarked on the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition in the spring of 2017. In the state of Idaho, 4th grade social studies standards focus on westward exploration and expansion and Idaho tribes. In an effort to bring the historical content alive, a serendipitous connection was made within the local community of Moscow between the 4th grade teacher and graduate students who had extensive experience in boat building and river navigation. The idea of building a canoe with the 4th grade students at PPCS quickly took on a life of its own. A David Thompson style cedar plank canoe was deemed appropriate for this learning expedition as it integrates the cultural influences of European and Indigenous peoples throughout the history of Western North America. In 1811, David Thompson, an English-born explorer and geographer, led the first expedition to navigate the Columbia River from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. Thompson also created a series of maps that provided the most complete record of western North America into the nineteenth century. Through his explorations, Thompson interacted closely with many Native American peoples and built seven cedar plank canoes that incorporated both European and Indigenous techniques. The David Thompson style canoe was not only appropriate for this project given the historical geographies in which the canoe was built and used, but also a feasible option for available financial resources and the time required by the canoe-building guides to complete the project.
The community of Moscow, Idaho is located on historic Nez Perce tribal lands and is situated between two reservations, the Coeur d’Alene and the Nez Perce. Additionally, Moscow is within close proximity to the Clearwater and Snake rivers, two major waterways that have historical significance for navigation, fishing, and inhabitation. Moscow is located in the Inland Northwest, and the many rivers of the region connect people, culture and historical events as they flow together and make their way to the Pacific Ocean. People and cultures coming together to influence each other, just as our rivers do, has played a significant role in the history of Idaho and the Inland Northwest region. Furthermore, there is a revival of canoe culture in Idaho and the Inland Northwest, resulting in canoes from different cultures coming together. It is with this in mind that the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition sought to build on local resources to create meaningful learning for the 4th grade students.
The building of the David Thompson style cedar plank canoe served as the thread that wove the entire learning expedition together. Rigorous history, social studies, and literacy work in the classroom was balanced with hands-on woodworking throughout the semester. Individually, each student hand-carved their own paddle and collaboratively as a team/crew, the students built a 21 foot cedar canoe. Here we explain the main elements of the classroom curriculum, as well as corresponding canoe specific activities. The curriculum for the learning expedition spread across the spring semester and included a short kick-off unit followed by three discrete month-long case studies.
Kick-off unit. In the kick-off unit, 4th grade students began learning about the historic and current mixing of cultures in Idaho, and beyond, and how this process has shaped who we are. Students started this journey by reading about interactions between Columbus and the Arawak people and critically analyzing who really “discovered” America. Then student groups were assigned one of five federally recognized tribes in Idaho and created posters to present general information about their tribe, including the types of canoes they made and used, as well as maps highlighting both historical territories and current reservation boundaries.
During the kick-off unit, along with being introduced to historical canoe styles, students were presented with a variety of activities to learn about woodworking. For example, students learned about the various tools that would be used to build the canoe and paddles. Safe use of tools and proper technique were emphasized up front. Students were also able to practice using the tools with expert supervision to ensure proper technique.
Case study #1. In the first case study, students studied the history of westward exploration and expansion in the United States, and began to understand both positive and negative impacts of the confluence of cultures in our history. Students learned about the canoe supported expeditions of Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery, David Thompson, and subsequent westward expansion (i.e. colonization), with particular focus on the impacts on Indigenous peoples. They read and examined stories about the Nez Perce War, the Navajo Long Walk, and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.
During the first case study, students began carving their individual paddles and also helped with canoe building tasks where applicable. For the former, students outlined the shape of the paddle based on body length measurements to ensure that their paddles would fit them perfectly. Once the shape was set, an adult used a jigsaw to cut the cedar board. From there, students began using hand planes and other woodworking tools to refine the shape of the paddle. This task would carry through both case study #1 and #2.
Case study #2. In the second case study, students discovered the power of storytelling to understand culture. They explored the meaning of “culture” by defining their own personal values, making an artistic poster to express how our design principles help us shape our school culture at PPCS, and learning about Indigenous cultures directly from experts, including Shoshone-Bannock, Oglala Lakota, San Carlos Apache, and Nez Perce tribal members. Next, students studied the structure and elements of written and told stories. They analyzed picture books to identify the structure of a story and elements of culture, learned the elements of oral storytelling from an expert storyteller, evaluated videos of Indigenous storytellers using these elements, then practiced using these elements to tell the class a myth from an Idaho tribe.
As students shaped and sanded paddles, there were numerous opportunities to work on building the canoe. For example, students measured the keel board and secured it to the gunwales using a clamp that supports bending to create the shape of the canoe. Students also laid out the ribs and measured with their hands where the ribs needed to be bent. Then they labeled the ribs to denote where the ribs would go on the canoe. Once the ribs were bent, the students helped by pouring hot water on the ribs as they were being positioned and secured which provided the full shape of the canoe. Once ribs were in place, students sawed the ribs extending beyond the gunwales flush and also sanded sharp edges throughout the process. Students participated in ways that were within their abilities throughout the project. This was oftentimes a sliding scale with some students taking more initiative than others, or showing more aptitude for woodworking. Every student was vested in the canoe building process.
Case study #3. For the third case study, each student interviewed family members about their family values and culture, and wrote stories with their “family motto” as the theme. Students used a high-quality criteria checklist together with peer and teacher feedback for multiple drafts and revisions. Then they practiced telling their stories using the elements of storytelling they had previously studied, and prepared to tell their stories around the campfire at their Celebration of Learning. Throughout the expedition, students identified words of wisdom that they would want to strive to live by and recorded them in their handmade journals. By integrating what they learned throughout the three case studies, each student wrote a nugget of wisdom that expressed a genuine and valuable lesson that they learned from experts (people and texts) about the confluence of cultures.
With the canoe almost to completion, students began preparing for the water. Students created potential names for their canoe and voted to name the canoe Burning Wisdom. Then students, their family members, and community members engaged in the canoe-building process participated in a naming ceremony where Burning Wisdom was officially given her name and wished well on all future river journeys. Next, student’s artistically wood burned their unique nugget of wisdom into the gunwale and thwarts of the canoe so that their message of understanding and hope about the confluence of cultures can be read by all who paddle in Burning Wisdom. Students then oiled the canoe and paddles and learned about water safety in preparation for the Celebration of Learning and the maiden voyage of Burning Wisdom. At the final Celebration of Learning, students paddled their hand-crafted canoe on the Snake River, together with members of their own families and traditional canoe families who brought their own dugout canoes from throughout the region.
The Work of Canoe Building
Canoes as a vessel of education allows students to draw connections between their local waterways and the cultures traditionally travelling and utilizing those waterways. Because all canoes are different and are designed in tandem with the region’s environment, the act of building a canoe with students and community members can provide an authentic gateway into deep learning. Grounded in place-based educational theory, using the canoe as a vessel for education is readily adaptable to any region’s waterways and traditional watercrafts. Below we discuss three key elements that should be considered when creating a canoe building educational experience with youth.
Collaborate with a local master canoe builder. If you are not familiar with canoe building it is critical to connect and collaborate with a master canoe builder who is familiar with the geographically relevant canoe style. It is important to connect with those who are interested in teaching their craft and working with youth, and who are willing to adjust their canoe building routines with the teachers desired scheduling. Ideally, the canoe builder would be in charge of sourcing all materials and tools; however, the teacher may be required to purchase supplemental tool/materials as needed. If you do not know a local canoe builders, here are several methods to aid in the finding of a canoe builder:
- Google search – A simple internet search using keywords such as “traditional canoes of the Pacific Northwest” or search for a “traditional canoe builder” in your town.
- Native American Tribes – Traditional canoes are built by tribal members across the Northwest and these canoe builders are knowledge keepers for both their people and the regions in which they live.
- Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (WCHA) – The WCHA serves as a gathering place for canoe builders across the country. With online forums and social media, a local canoe builder is just a click away: www.WCHA.org.
Decide on the canoe building location. Where the canoe building takes place matters. An ideal space would be outdoors in a location on the school premises. However, some canoes are suitable for indoors, provided that the canoe builder approves of the location. Additionally, for some traditional canoes a fire is a vital canoe building tool for bending wood or soaking (in warm water) raw materials. If a fire is not possible, propane burners can be used to supplement a heat source. If outdoors, a covered, dry area will ensure the students’ comfort while they build their canoe. And finally, it is critical that the space be open and large enough to accommodate parents and community members who come to observe or help build the canoe. An ideal space would be big enough for many people to gather, and have the option of serving food, having a fire, and creating a community bond.
Connect canoe building to curriculum. The degree that the canoe building project is integrated into the curriculum is left to the teacher’s discretion. However, from our experience we believe that careful integration can make this project very powerful while meeting state requirements for multiple subjects and skills. Additionally, the teacher must communicate with the canoe builder to ensure compatibility with classes and building schedules. We recommend that the students visit the canoe site at least three times a week. This ensures the student’s engagement with each step of the process and provides enough hands-on education for the students to learn actual wood working skills. So as to not completely burden the students and teacher, the canoe builder will typically continue working on the canoe throughout the days when no students are scheduled to visit.
One of the most rewarding aspects of using the canoe as an educational vessel is discovering and uncovering the myriad of ways to integrate canoe building with the curriculum and educational standards that must be met. While this requires some degree of creativity, simple lesson plans can be created to explore principles of mathematics, for example, using scale model canoes using ratios, speed, displacement and hydrodynamics or even determining the mass of a dugout canoe (compared to the log before it was carved). Additionally, environmental science standards can be met through the exploration of the species of trees and plants required to build a canoe, which opens up opportunity to explore forest ecology, invasive species, and other relevant topics. And as illustrated by the Confluence of Cultures curriculum model described above, canoe building provides a unique and culturally relevant opportunity to explore history and different cultures’ uses of canoes on their local waterways.
When possible, we advise that the canoe builder facilitate and provide a paddle carving module to the canoe building project. While some steps in canoe building are quite technical and tedious, we have demonstrated students from the 4th grade and up are capable with carving their own canoe paddle in three to four weeks. The opportunity for students to carve their own paddles allows for an individual sense of accomplishment while the canoe is a collaborative group project.
Organize a trip to paddle the canoe. Finally, canoes are built to be paddled. It is critical to plan a culminating maiden voyage where the youth launch and paddle the canoe that they built. This should take place at a local waterway that the students learned about during the course of the year. The paddle event can occur in the course of an afternoon, or more ideally, with a full day or overnight experience. For the paddling component, we recommend that you can coordinate with a local watersports organization or outdoor recreation program who can provide life jackets and expertise in water safety protocols. These culminating voyages are a ceremony to honor the canoe but also the students and community members who participated in the project.
Secure funding. Projects like this require funds. Often times in-kind resources can get a project down the path quite a ways. Depending on the level of resources needed that cannot be procured through local volunteers, plan to budget between $2,000 and $10,000 to adequately cover costs. We have found local education funds are of reasonable magnitude to support an effort such as this. For example, we recently were awarded approximately $10,000 for the upcoming academic year to build another David Thompson style canoe with PPCS 4th graders and collaborate with a regional tribal school building a traditional dugout canoe.
Throughout the building of the canoe as a narrative thread of the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition, many lessons were learned that may prove helpful for readers interested in doing a similar project within their context. We will share lessons learned from the perspective of the teacher and lead author, Ms. Hill.
- Standards-based education can be hands-on, meaningful and authentic! If it can be, then it should be. If research and practice show that it works to achieve educational goals, then when it is possible in the context, then that should be the goal. In this particular learning expedition, I was able to hit all of the required social studies and English Language Arts (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) standards in the classroom, AND we had time to build a canoe. So my main message is that it can be done. Teachers and administrators, I encourage you to be brave. I truly believe that you can make it work with the right types of support and resources in place.
- Spending the time on these types of hands-on projects makes the classroom work so much more meaningful. It is very clear that these kids will remember this experience for the rest of their lives, and it was all connected to the social studies content and literacy skills that they would be learning in fourth grade with or without this type of project.
- Parents and other family members became so incredibly involved in the project and engaged in the classroom learning through this project. They were deeply inspired to see their children accomplish such huge tasks such as safely using woodworking tools, hand-carving their own paddles specially fit to their own body measurements, and working together as a crew family to build a canoe that they could paddle in together. For some children and families, this was their first canoe trip.
- Students and families were incredibly inspired by the opportunities to authentically and genuinely interact with Indigenous peoples through this project and the paddle/camping trip.
- Local and regional Indigenous peoples were very willing and honored to work with us on this project, on both the social studies content and canoe-building pieces. These connections made the project authentic and meaningful. The genuine support of local tribal members was apparent in receiving invitations for future paddling opportunities and with funding for a future project to work closely with the 4th grade class in Lapwai, Idaho.
- A key element for success of a project like this is that the teacher has a very close working relationship with a local nonprofit or other group or individual to do this type of project (i.e., Voyages of Rediscovery, and local Indigenous partners). Our EL model of education at PPCS embraces this type of outreach and collaboration very well, and I would encourage other teachers in any other school system or teaching model to think about how to do this within their own contexts.
The canoe building component proved to be an invaluable addition to the learning expedition for the PPCS 4th graders. Students were able to associate the content of the curriculum to a meaningful and tangible context represented by the David Thompson style canoe. The canoe brought people together that otherwise wouldn’t have had a reason to work together, which led to powerful learning opportunities. By opening the school doors to the possibilities of building a canoe, we found that the risk was rewarded in outcomes much greater than we had anticipated. The effort was completely worth it.
Cousins, E. (Ed.). (2000). Roots: From outward bound to expeditionary learning. Dubuque, IA: Union-Hoermann Press.
Expeditionary Learning (2011). Expeditionary learning core practices: A vision for improving schools. New York, NY:
Renée Hill is the fourth-grade teacher at Palouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS) in Moscow, Idaho. Using the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, she has engaged her students in inquiry-based projects including building a David Thompson style canoe as a symbol of the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history.
Dr. Brant G. Miller is a science educator at the University of Idaho. He teaches science methods and technology integration and does research on Adventure Learning.
Adam Wicks-Arshack is a PhD student in the Water Resources Department at the University of Idaho. Adam has facilitated educational expeditions and canoe building projects throughout the Pacific Northwest.
This article is a story of how fourth-grade students in Moscow, Idaho studied the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history by building a canoe, hand-carving paddles, and actively participating in the resurgence of the traditional canoe throughout the Pacific Northwest region. We hope you enjoy seeing our work and seeing how we went through this process!
Editor note: This article was written by fourth-grade students at Palouse Prairie Charter School during the spring of 2018. Students were guided through the process in groups and this narrative is the product of that work. The teacher and collaborating faculty from a local university supported the writing, editing, and revision process. The level of adult guidance varies in each section. Students wrote this as an extension of the article “Burning Wisdom: The Canoe as a Vessel for Learning” published in the Fall 2017 issues of CLEARING, which documented the previous year’s canoe-building project with a focus on the curriculum.
magine a life with no cars, no planes, no city buses, only canoes. Imagine you are in Idaho 200 years ago, that you are surrounded by rivers, and you mainly travel by canoe. For the indigenous peoples of Idaho and throughout the United States, the canoe used to be the main means of transportation and communication. Many tribes around the region, including the Kalispel, Coeur d’ Alene, and Nez Perce (Nimi´ipuu) of Idaho, have not built canoes for over one hundred years. For example, up until 2018, the Nimi´ipuu had not made a dugout for one hundred and thirteen years. The reason for this is that throughout the process of colonization of indigenous peoples in the 1800s and 1900s, many tribes were removed from their land and prohibited from practicing their cultures. For example, their children were taken to boarding schools and taught that it was bad to live by their cultures, speak their languages, and build their canoes. The importance of the traditional canoe for the inhabitants of this land was temporarily hidden, but it is coming back. By building their traditional canoes again, indigenous peoples are reclaiming their culture.
In our fourth-grade class at Palouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS), we spent a semester studying the westward exploration and expansion of the United States, colonization, the impacts on indigenous peoples who have inhabited our region’s lands for centuries, and the cultural revival that is currently happening through the resurgence of the traditional canoe. During this time, we spent ten weeks building a David Thompson style cedar plank canoe. David Thompson was the first known explorer to navigate the length of the Columbia River, from headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. He also made some of the first maps of the region. David Thompson built many canoes on his voyages by combining European canoe forms and Indigenous techniques that he learned from peoples he met along the way. We built our canoe as an example and memory of the confluence of cultures in our region – the Northwestern United States.
The Resurgence of the Traditional Canoe – Native Perspectives
We are hoping to capture our learning and reflections in this article. Many texts available to children (and to people in general) are written from the perspective of settlers. We interviewed members of tribes in Idaho who are helping build canoes to bring back their cultures. We interviewed Nathan Piengkham from the Kalispel tribe, and Standing Red Bear (Gary Dorr) from the Nez Perce tribe in order to tell you the story from their points of view. Both Nathan and Gary have been helping people reconnect to indigenous canoe culture by building canoes together with their tribal and non-tribal communities. We have included their stories as part of the learning and reflections that we share in this article. We have also prepared transcripts of these interviews as two separate short articles following this one. We hope that their stories help you see the importance of playing an active role in the resurgence of the traditional canoe in the Northwestern United States. We also hope that their stories help you respect people that might have a different culture than you.
Standing Red Bear, our Nimi´ipuu friend helped build New Medicine, the first Nimi´ipuu dugout canoe on the Nez Perce Reservation in 113 years. He taught us about the historical and cultural importance of canoes for native peoples and led us in ceremony to extend peace and safety to all the people who help carve and will travel in this canoe.
“Canoes were our hunting rigs, our grocery carts, we rode across the river to collect berries in them. We’re building canoes again now to reclaim part of our culture.”
– Standing Red Bear, Nez Perce Tribe
Read Gary’s complete interview here
“The canoes are bringing our communities together.”
– Nathan Piengkham, Kalispel Tribe.
Read Nathan’s complete interview here
The tribes are bringing back the canoe. And it is having a very positive impact on their lives. Nathan Piengkham from the Kalispel Tribe explained, “Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol or other boring stuff, or instead of leaving the tribe and going somewhere else, now people can stay home and work with the canoes. They can learn our Salish Language of the Kalispel Tribe, and they can learn how to get the natural foods from our mountains.” As the fourth-grade crew, we are thankful to be part of this historically significant movement.
How has the confluence of cultures shaped who we are?
Throughout our semester-long learning expedition, we studied many topics in order to try to answer one overarching question. The “guiding question” we started with was “How has the confluence of cultures shaped who we are?” Throughout our studies we continually came back to this question to reflect on our own answers. An important part of figuring out how to answer this question was understanding what confluence of cultures means.
To explain the meaning of confluence of cultures, we will break it up into separate words. First, culture is how people live and interact. Many people have a different understanding of culture. In our class, we interviewed a handful of our own students to see what they think culture means. There were various different viewpoints of culture which include traditions, stories that are passed down from generation to generation that allow people to experience the history of their culture, what a person does for a living, what a person does on a daily basis, what people do and believe in, and the values we teach, learn, and live by. The important thing that we agreed on is that we all respect each other even if we are different.
We discovered that culture has many layers. The outer layers are the things that you can see, like clothing, food or language. As you get deeper into the layers the parts of culture get more meaningful and harder to see, like the social norms we follow, and our values and beliefs. An example of these layers of culture is shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. The layers of culture
Second, a confluence is a place where streams or rivers merge or flow together.
A confluence of cultures is when cultures meet and merge. Sometimes when two cultures meet they flow together and sometimes they clash. Sometimes cultures come together in perfect balance and sometimes not. We studied the clash of cultures that occurred between Columbus and the Arawaks, and between settlers and indigenous peoples during colonization as the United States expanded its territory westward. We also studied the flow of cultures that occurred when the Nimi´ipuu welcomed Lewis and Clark, nursed them back to good health and showed them the way to the Pacific Ocean. We studied many examples of the confluence of cultures in Idaho’s history, both positive and negative. But did you know that we are an example of the confluence of cultures just by doing this expedition? We visited the site in Lapwai, Idaho where the Nimi´ipuu were building their canoe New Medicine, and we also went to the Lapwai Senior’s Center and to the Lapwai Boys and Girls Club to spread kindness. Both are real examples of the confluence of cultures in our lives as fourth graders.
The confluence of cultures has shaped our ancestors, our own personal histories, and continues to shape our lives today. We spent ten weeks building our canoe as a symbol of the confluence of cultures in our lives – past, present, and future.
Building a David Thompson-style cedar plank canoe
Step 1: The math
In building a canoe, the first step is the math. We had to do some mathematical calculations to see how much wood to buy and to create a good plan for building. Without doing the math for the canoe we might have bought the wrong amount of wood, went over our budget, or wasted resources. We started by making estimations, which got better the further we got into the process of building our canoe. Eventually all the measurements added up and then we were ready to start building it! Here is an example of how we applied fourth-grade math to calculate how much wood we would need for the ribs of the canoe.
We knew the canoe would be 22 feet long. We multiplied 22 feet by 12 inches (because there are 12 inches in one foot) to find that the canoe would be 264 inches long. We also knew that every four inches, there would be a two-inch rib and a two-inch open space. So, we divided 264 inches by 4 inches, to find that we would need a total of 66 ribs for the canoe. Next, we needed to find the average length of the ribs in order to decide how much wood we needed to buy to make the ribs. We used Burning Wisdom, (the canoe that last year’s fourth-grade crew built) to take some measurements. We found that Burning Wisdom also had 66 ribs and the average length of these ribs was 52 inches. Then, we multiplied 66 ribs by 52 inches to find that we would need 3,432 inches of wood for the ribs. Then, we converted this to linear feet by dividing 3,432 inches by 12 inches to get a total of 286 linear feet. So, we knew we would need 286 linear feet of wood for the ribs.
Step 2: The gunwale
Then we made the gunwale, which is two long planks bent together to make the top shape of the canoe. The gunwale consists of inner and outer planks called the inwale and the outwale.
Step 3: The keel
Xander (pronounced Zander), our canoe-building guide, built the keel board. It consisted of three small boards glued together and bent into a “C” like shape. We connected each end of the keel to each end of the gunwale. This formed the frame of the canoe!
Step 4: The ribs
Then we soaked the rib planks in water so that we could carefully bend them into the shape of the ribs. We used last year’s canoe (Burning Wisdom) to bend the ribs over so that we could get the correct shape of the wood for each rib. Then, we screwed the end of each rib to the gunwale and the middle of each rib to the keel so that the ribs would stay in place. Together the ribs, keel and gunwale are like the skeleton of the canoe.
Step 5: The planks
Next, we built the planks. The planks are like the skin on a human. The planks are many long, flat pieces of wood covering the ribs so that water cannot get in while we are paddling in the river. The planks of the canoe are like the skin on a human.
Step 6: The fiberglass layer and epoxy
Next, we covered the outside of the canoe with a transparent fiberglass cloth, covered in epoxy. These layers will help keep water out of the canoe, but still let us appreciate the wood of our handmade cedar plank canoe.
Step 7: The name
Giving a name is an important part of welcoming a new canoe into the canoe family. Our class felt very lucky to help bring culture and canoes back to the native peoples of the land where we now live. Every canoe gives a little bit of culture back to the indigenous peoples in the area, which we took away from them long ago. As a crew we decided to name our canoe Blooming Culture because blooming means coming back. Flowers bloom in the spring, but they are always there as seeds. The tribes were never really gone and now they are making a huge effort to make their cultures more visible to tribal and non-tribal peoples. We should respect their cultures and help them with these efforts. Blooming Culture will send the message that culture is blooming again and canoes are helping with that. Our canoe is helping to bring back culture.
Step 8: Family mottos and paint
After studying how indigenous storytelling reveals culture and values, we interviewed our family members about our own family values and culture. We wrote stories with our “family motto” as the theme, and we each woodburned our family motto on the inside of the gunwale.
Finally, it was time to paint our canoe. We wanted our canoe to represent the seven directions in indigenous way of life that our experts taught us about. We painted our canoe with a medicine wheel to symbolize how it will carry our greatest hopes to all four cardinal directions – North, East, South and West. The stripes on the bottom of the canoe represent the fifth and sixth directions – green for Earth and blue for Sky. And the children sitting in the middle paddling the canoe represent the seventh direction – The Center.
The paddle-making process
Making paddles is an important part of the canoe-building process. You have to have a paddle to go out on the water in a canoe. Standing Red Bear told us that Nimi´ipuu children used to carve paddles while the men did the heavy working with logs to build the canoes. Similarly, this semester we worked on carving our paddles while we were waiting to learn a new step to build our canoe, or for our turn to do a specific job. Each fourth-grade student hand-carved their own cedar paddle. Together we made twenty-four paddles. Just like our canoe, all twenty-four of our paddles also help to bring back culture.
To make our paddles, first we had to find a cedar board that was about our height from the ground up to our chin. Next, we measured the distance from our armpit to the tip of our fingers to find the length of our shaft. Then, we used these measurements to draw out the shape of our paddle on our board. Then we used a hand planer and a spokeshave to take off layers and layers of wood until we liked the weight of the paddle and its general shape. The hand planer helped with taking off large curls of wood and rounding the edges. The spokeshave was good for shaving off smaller layers and with more detailed rounding.
Finally, we were ready to sand. We started by marking with crayon the places on one side of the paddle that needed to be sanded. First, we used 60 grit sandpaper to take all the crayon marks off then repeated the process with 100 grit, then 120, and lastly 150 grit. We repeated this same process on the other side. When both sides were smooth and soft, we were done sanding and ready to decorate our paddles. We used a hand saw to cut off chunks of wood we didn’t need, like the top of the ribs that stuck out above the gunwale.
We decorated the shaft and handle of the paddles by woodburning quotes with a message about protecting the cultural and natural resources of the land that native and non-native peoples share, and the importance of creating a true confluence of cultures. We collaborated with PPCS seventh-grade students who painted coastal formline art on the blades to express the connection between rivers, salmon and orcas, work which was guided by Samish Nation artists and part of their middle school spring learning expedition.
The power of the EL Education Model
Our school, Palouse Prairie Charter School, uses the EL Education (formerly called Expeditionary Learning) model. In this model, we balance rigor and joy. This means that we learn new things, and have fun while meeting Idaho State Education Standards for Social Studies, Literacy, Art and Humanities, and Science. The paddles and canoe we built shows how EL Education encourages us go out into the world, explore new ideas and work with and for people instead of only sitting at a desk to meet fourth-grade standards.
A key component of EL Education are the experts that teach us and help us with our projects. We want you to know about the many people who spent their time and energy to help us in this project. Two experienced canoe builders from Voyages of Rediscovery, The River School spent ten weeks guiding us through every step of building our canoe and carving our paddles. Several additional experienced canoe and paddle wood workers in the region helped us find better techniques to carve our paddles and helped us build our canoe. Several regional tribal members taught us about their cultures, shared stories with us, led us in ceremonies, and joined us in the canoe-building process. Two experienced storytellers from the University of Idaho taught us some storytelling techniques. An employee of NRS taught us how to be safe on the water for our canoe trip. Members of indigenous canoe families performed a naming ceremony for our canoe at our paddle trip and paddled with us in their own handmade dugout canoes. And a professor from the University of Idaho helped us write this article so we could share our story with you. All of this work was made possible by the financial support of the Nez Perce Tribe Local Education Program Fund and the Latah County Community Foundation. Thank you all for helping us!
Another key element of the EL Education model is Celebration of Learning, or a public event where we share our discoveries and hard work with our community. As our Celebration of Learning, we organized a paddle and camping trip to take our canoe on its first journey. On June 2-3, 2018 we paddled our canoe on the Snake River, together with traditional canoe families from throughout the Pacific Northwest region. At this event, two members of the regional indigenous canoe family led us in a naming ceremony to give Blooming Culture her name.
A canoe is a sacred piece of art and hard work that many Native Americans had lost and now are bringing back. Canoes are culture that needs to be preserved.” -Fourth-grade student
As fourth-grade students, we gained respect, understanding and curiosity about indigenous history and culture. When our teacher asked us about the most important things we learned in this project, one student said, “I discovered that the confluence of cultures was really a clash of cultures, like Gary said. We didn’t really flow together. The settlers pushed the Nez Perce off their land and forced them to leave. I now know that my house is really on Nez Perce land.” Another student stated, “I learned about the past, how hard it was, and how we still ended up in peace. I learned that we can have peace even when it is hard.” Another student said, “Our project matters because we went back in history and talked about what actually did happen and what should have happened.”
Our teacher also asked us about our hopes for the future confluence of cultures in Idaho. One student replied, “I hope that more people will care about the past. If kids keep learning about our history, I think we can keep honoring the people who did amazing things for us. It’s incredible how hard so many people fought to keep their tribes together when we moved onto their land. We all need to remember this.” Another student answered, “I hope that this canoe keeps reminding us of the past and remembering the amazing people of the past, and the amazing people of now. We need to remember what it was like in the past and what people went through, and I think this canoe is a good reminder!”
The PPCS fourth-grade crew would like to thank the many individuals for supporting us academically and personally throughout this project. We could not have done it without you!
Native Voices: Reclaiming a Culture through the Traditional Canoe
Nathan Piengkham is a member of the Kalispel Tribe and the Executive Director 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.
Can you tell us your name, where you are from, and a little bit about yourself?
My full name is Nathan Samsavath (pronounced Sahm-suh-vat) Piengkham (Pronounced Pink’em). I am from the Kalispell Reservation in Washington State. I was born on the coast near Seattle, in Redmond Washington.
I went to Cusick School, which is a tiny school. There were about 20 kids in my class. I played soccer and baseball. I also did martial arts a lot when I was a kid. My dad is not Native American. My mom is half Native American and half European. My dad is from Laos, near Thailand. So I am half Lao. One of the things Laos is known for is kickboxing and my dad taught me that when I was younger. My uncles taught me Kung Fu and Karate when I was younger. My Uncle Dave was a national Judo champion when he was younger.
I grew up in the mountains so my cousins and I were out in the forest a lot when we were younger. It was really fun. I got see frogs, bugs and turtles.
Many tribes throughout the region have not made a canoe in many years and they are starting to build canoes again. Why and can you tell us what is happening now?
Well, that is kind of a long story. I didn’t know anything about canoes. I actually bought a 12-foot long fiberglass canoe from the store. I never got to paddle it because my uncle had finished building that dugout canoe. So I didn’t even know a lot about the stuff that was going on. A lot of the dams were put in so we didn’t really have a use for our canoes anymore, so no one ever built canoes. We were told not to speak our language, so no one really spoke our language either. We only just started to get a lot of that stuff back. So we are starting to learn our language again. If I were to greet you guys I would say Hest Shulook (xest schulux) or Hest Salhalt (Xest Sxlxalt). That means good day. Then I would say Nathan Piengkham or thlue ease quest (ᴌu i skwest), which means “Nathan Piengkham I am called” if you translate it directly. We just started learning our language so it’s hard to get it all back. It is strange growing up without knowing my language. I knew some of my language growing up, but not a lot of it. So it is cool now to see everybody learning the language. We have a school about the size of your school (Palouse Prairie Charter School, about 180 kids) and the kids learn it from a really young age, so they know it better than I do. So what happened is that one of the tribes on the coast gave the tribes in my area giant cedar logs, maybe 3,000 – 4,000 pound logs. Those logs were sitting there for about two years and no one was doing anything with them. They sit that long because they were actually drying out. When the plants are first cut down, they are still wet, so it takes about two years for logs to dry out. After those two years my uncle and my brother, and a few other people started carving a log. And in 2016 all of the tribes decided that we would paddle together. There were two people named Dan Nanamken and BenAlex Dupri who organized some paddles, but they did not get all of the canoes together. Later they both told me that I was the one who has to take over to organize all of the canoes and the canoe journeys. And I said, “Okay!” And that’s how I am involved in all of this.
When you were a kid, what types of canoes did the tribes that you were most exposed to build and use for transportation?
When I was a kid we didn’t have canoes at all. The canoes that they had before I was young, people aren’t sure about. People thought we had sturgeon nose canoes made out of birchbark, and people thought that was all we had. But we did our own research and we found out that we had birchbark canoes, white pine bark canoes, and another canoe called the tamarack bark canoe. I just found out that we used to have these canoes too. And those are the different bark canoes, but we also had dugout canoes, which is the kind that you guys might have seen us bring out to the Snake River. It’s the kind that starts with a giant log and you carve it out. There are also different types of dugout canoes. There are all different shapes and sizes. We used to have all of those types of canoes.
What happened to the canoes that your ancestors made?
When our ancestors made canoes, it was their canoe. So when they died, they buried them with it. That is why no one every sees canoes anymore is because we would sink them out in the lakes or rivers and they would get buried. There is one dugout canoe in the very bottom of Pend Oreille Lake. It could be part of a burial, so that is why we don’t bother it. So we can’t really see what it looks like.
Why did your tribe stop building canoes?
We stopped building canoes for a long time because people didn’t like to be Native American when I was younger. I am Kalispel, but people didn’t like to be Kalispel. They were ashamed of it because we were really poor. We were put on a reservation where farming wasn’t good, so people couldn’t make any money. So no one wanted to be us because we didn’t have any money and we didn’t have a good place to live. So people didn’t like us to speak our language. Our own parents and grandparents didn’t like us to speak our language. They didn’t like us to do things that our people used to do. Many people were focused on drugs and alcohol and getting into trouble because, out in the mountains there’s not a lot of stuff to do. Normally we would be making canoes because canoes and canoeing out on the water or fishing or picking strawberries and huckleberries was what we always did. We would be doing a lot of fun stuff, but we didn’t have all of that anymore, so people just turned to doing things that they didn’t understand very well, like drugs and alcohol, which is sad.
When was the last canoe made by your tribe?
We don’t know actually. That is not in our history. Right now we have two canoes. One dugout canoe and one white pine bark canoe. And those are the only ones that the Kalispell tribe has that anyone knows about. We used to have more, but nobody knows about them. The thing is we didn’t have a lot of written history, so there are people alive right now who might remember that last canoe, but they can’t remember it unless they are out there canoeing with us. If they are stuck at home, they won’t be able to remember. So maybe hopefully when you guys get to go paddle out on this canoe maybe we can bring some older people and they might remember stuff like that.
Did transport become difficult when you stopped building canoes?
Transport did get a little bit harder. Instead of canoeing down to our family members, we would walk. It wasn’t that big of a deal since we have a tiny reservation and people were starting to buy cars for transportation. Like I said, our tribe was really poor, so all the families would all use one car. They would all pack into one car and drive up and down the reservation Our reservation is not very big. The Kalispell tribe is a small tribe, about 500 of us total. About 150 live on the coast, 150 live in Spokane, and about 150 of us live on the reservation. So there are only about 100 of us who know anything about our history and our ancestors. There are not very many of us left. In 1950 there were less than 150 of us left total. There are not many Kalispels alive anymore, at least that’s what we were always told.
What is the importance of the traditional canoe for you and your tribe?
It’s about learning our history and learning what we should be doing. Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol or other boring stuff, or instead of leaving the tribe and going somewhere else, now people can stay home and work with the canoes. Or they can learn our Salish Language of the Kalispell Tribe, or they can learn how to get the natural foods from our mountains. With the canoes we would fish all the time for fish that were in our area. And we would eat plants that were along the edge of the river, like garlic, onions, or chives. There is a lot of good food on the river. We used to eat oysters or mussels. We would trade with other tribes to get salmon or other types of plants, like water potatoes. A lot of the kids go out in October to get water potatoes, and some of us will take out canoes to get them because water potatoes are in shallow water. But the water is cold so you have to be really tough.
Why after so long did you decide to bring the traditional canoe back?
I didn’t decide, but others were Dan Nanamkin was the first one that was trying to bring it back. He started the River Warrior Facebook page and that’s how everyone originally communicated about canoes. Then BenAlex Dupri, he is a videographer and he makes documentaries. When we left Standing Rock, North Dakota and visited with the tribe up there, he stayed there because of the pipeline protest, which became very well-known throughout the world. Ben Alex made it his mission to stay there and make a documentary there, which just came out not too long ago. Our canoes are in that film for sure. Our canoe families went out there and helped a lot to make sure that the people were taken care of. When he left for Standing Rock, I was left as the only one to take care of the canoe families. I see it bringing a lot of our community together. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) originally for the Kalispell Tribe, the BIA office was on the Nez Perce Reservation. Even though our office was far away from us, it worked really well and we didn’t have any issues. The problem was that when they switched our office to the Spokane agency, suddenly we didn’t get any services anymore and we couldn’t contact the BIA anymore. We don’t know why, but we needed to have a relationship with the Nez Perce Tribe that was far away. Now because of the canoes, we are talking to the Nez Perce Tribe again and visiting people down here in Moscow. The canoes are bringing our communities together. So that is why I chose to stick with the canoe stuff. It is really important for all of our people, our family and our friends.
Was it hard to bring the canoe back, and why or why not?
Yes, it was very difficult to bring the canoes back. Like I mentioned, there were a couple of people trying to help me, but they ended up doing other things and they kind of left me with it. For two years we paddled without any formal support. A lot of people have a school or cultural or language program to help them organize, but at the time I was still in my late 20s and I was really new to organizing and being a leader. I used to be a tutor and I would help people graduate from high school. I would help some of my family members graduate. I also took kids out for activities, like to play basketball, go skateboarding, or go swimming. One time I took a bunch of kids to Yellowstone National Park and we went swimming, but there was a big sign that said “Beware, Vicious Otters May Attack.” And I was like, “What?” There were no vicious otters, but there were leeches, and that was creepy. There were a lot of buffalo wandering around the streets. So it was difficult, but I had a lot of training to learn how to organize people. I went to college for Tribal Administration and Tribal Government. I double majored in Psychology and Philosophy. I took a lot of business, accounting and math classes, but my focus was always psychology and philosophy.
It has been difficult to bring back the canoe. We are still organizing our canoe family. I just started a nonprofit, the River Warrior Society, to help us so that we have an organization to facilitate everything that we’re doing. Some people might think that “Warrior” is aggressive for a name, but “Warrior” could mean a lot of different thing. It’s people who are fighting for a cause, not fighting people. It’s people who are fighting for people’s rights. Your teacher could be an Education Warrior because they are fighting every day to make sure that you get the best education you can get. So as River Warrior, we are fighting to maintain our culture. We are fighting to keep it. And so that we can educate our future generations so everyone can learn about the canoes, not just certain people. If you think about it, it doesn’t matter where your ancestors were from. Wherever they lived in the world, they all lived by a lake or a river or an ocean and they probably had a canoe. So learning this canoe stuff is learning all of our history.
Did the tradition and steps of how to build a canoe fade from your mind as so many years have gone by?
No, the thoughts and processes don’t fade because every time we look at the canoes, we remember what happened. Like my uncle chipped a piece out of the canoe, and every time I see that chip I remember him carving that out too hard and too big. So every time I see it, I remember the techniques and procedures of building the canoe. Every time we go out to paddle, we remember another piece.
Do you build new paddles every time you build a canoe?
We usually try to because the pieces you shave off of the canoe, you can use to make paddles. I have a paddle that is made from the same wood of my canoe. So they are both connected in that way. The cedar log we had was over 800 years old, so that paddle that I have is over 800 years old.
What is the importance of carving paddles?
There is a lot of thought that gets put into making a paddle. Every time you make a carve into it, you remember that. So having your own paddle means that every time you look at it and every time you paddle you remember how to carve. So it is like a teacher. That is one important reason, but also our ancestors did that same thing a long time ago, so at the same time you are learning how to carve a paddle, you are also learning your history. And people make paddles out of different types of wood, and every type of wood you carve differently. If the paddle is super light, you’d have to make it thicker so it doesn’t break. If the wood is super heavy, you can make the paddle really thin because it is really strong so it is not going to break. There is a lot of knowledge about making paddles. What the tribes on the coast would do is that they would make everyone on their team make a paddle, and then they would sell them to raise money to go on a paddle trip. That was how they would raise their money to go on paddles.
To learn more about Nathan and the River Warrior Society, visit https://riverwarriorsociety.org.
Native Voices: Reclaiming a Culture through the Traditional Canoe
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.