A Stillaguamish River Canoe

Roughly dressed block of cedar in preparation for carving. Source: flickr.com

The Stillaguamish Tribe live along the Stillaguamish River basin (map) of Northwestern Washington State.  They are a tribe which missed out on any reservation land in the 1850s and have struggled somewhat at times to maintain cultural identity as a diaspora.  Regaining Federal Status in 1976 was important to the tribe of about 200 members, as was 2009’s first “First Salmon” ceremonies in a generation.

An interesting and encouraging development seems to be the recent carving of the first Stillaguamish river canoe in a century.  While the larger dugout canoes (still being carved) of the outer coast nations, such as the Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth, are better known emblems of the Northwest Coast as a whole, these river canoes were equally important to the inland waterway and riverine nations of the Fraser Valley and Puget Sound.

According to an informative and well-written article in the Everett HeraldNet, the story starts with an interesting origin of the cedar log itself.

Stillaguamish elder Martha Tommy poles a river canoe in an undated historic photo. Note the widest point of the canoe is near the bow. Source: Stillaguamish.com

In 2009, a logging company unearthed seven old-growth cedar logs from an old road bed in the Stillaguamish River watershed near Arlington.  Remarkably, even after being buried for more than a century, the 300-year-old logs were in good shape and big enough for dugout canoes.  These logs were offered to Stillaguamish artist Felix Solomon, and one was chosen to become a canoe.  (It is worth noting here that access to large, clear, first growth cedar trees for use in canoes and art is an increasing crisis for many First Nations.  Sadly even the Haida are running out of “monumental cedar” (PDF); imagine trying to find one in suburban Puget Sound!  What could be a more poetic indictment of forest management greed than the notion we have to dig in the ground for the usable corpses of great trees to make even a modest dugout canoe?).

With access to wood, Solomon started to research the form and spirit of traditional Stillaguamish canoes.  A nice flickr.com set of pictures documents part of the carving process.  As you can see, these river canoes are much smaller affairs than the west coast versions, but no less essential for making a living and getting around on the land. Indeed, all over the coast there would have been a variety of canoe sizes from “personal” to long-distance group haulers – it tends to be the latter which get the attention.

Nooksack Canoe being Carved - or at least laid up in fibreglass!. Source: tribaljourneys.wordpress.com

These river canoes came up in comments on a recent post here, which noted that British Columbia’s Lieutentant Governor, The Honourable Steven Point of the Sto:Lo Nation, had been occupying his evenings at Government House by carving a river canoe (see also).  It’s not a million miles from the Stillaguamish River to the Fraser valley, so unsurprisingly there are some similarities in the two craft, as there is with the Nooksack Canoe shown above and the historic Port Townsend example here, and the Nisqually example here.   A classic Anthropological source of information is Waterman and Coffin (1920) Types of  Canoes on Puget Sound. This being the Internet Phase of Human Culture, you can download said document right now.

It’s good to see the canoe revival spreading across the Northwest:  it brings a tangible and engaging forum for so much attendant traditional use knowledge, cultural transmission  community enthusiasm – as this photo gallery of what superficially seems like a hot rod show attests!

B.C. Lieutenant Governor Steven Point near Victoria, paddling a canoe he carved. Source: Times-Colonist.

3 responses to “A Stillaguamish River Canoe

  1. Here is a picture of what is left of a small Salish canoe from Pat Bay that is at the RBCM. Catalogue Number is 1991.60.2.

    I note that when searching their on-line catalogue that it is possible to leave a comment about an object. Not sure what happens to the comment, but I do know that if one is using their ethnographic photos there are all kinds of user comments recorded on the physical catalogue – identifying people and places and so on. Could be a great tool for collections managers if knowledgeable people did interact with their collection. Kind of awkward interface though.


  2. Thanks APM, that is a tiny, fragile little craft. Looks to be about 2.5 metre long or so? Is that their infamous entire planked tree Culturally Modified Tree in the background?

    Congrats on finding it — I have never been able to navigate the user-hostile RBCM collections search:


    Entering search terms like <19000000 to mean before 1900 is ridonculous. It's a three page process to enter your search terms and then it won't allow saved searches. Clearly written by the database people not by the user interface people. OK I am not going to get wound up about the RBCM again. "I am happy they put some things online."

    Also this page is broken at RBCM: http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/searchpage.html


  3. Felix Solomon is not Stillaguamish; he’s Lummi/Haida. And the proper term for these river canoes is “shovelnose canoes”. They are carved specifically for use on our rivers with a platform at each end for a poler. These canoes were the pickup trucks of their day, used for fishing, hauling goods, family trips, hunting parties, etc. The second photo in the article above showing Sam P’yelo in his canoe shows a classic shovelnose canoe.


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