‘There are No Words’: Reviving Canoe Culture on the Upper Columbia River

Photo by Dina Gilio-Whitaker / After the canoes converge at Mission Point they head together toward the west shore of the river.

If you build them, they will come.

It began, as many things do, with a conversation. And when I first heard about it, I knew I had to be there, so I travelled from my adopted home in Southern California to my ancestral home on the Colville reservation.

“A little over a year ago we were told by a Coeur d’Alene elder named Felix Aripa that the salmon are waiting for the return of our canoes. He predicted that when the canoes return, the salmon will come back,” said Marc Gautier as we sat around a crackling campfire after paddling around 20 miles that day.

Only time will bear out Felix’s prophecy—and there is good reason to believe the salmon will return to Kettle Falls, known in the Salish language as “nsilx?a?itk?,” or big water. But for now, it is the people who come because of the canoes for the Upper Columbia Canoe Journey—each for different reasons, but mostly because of an ancestral connection to this place. I am one of them.

Kettle Falls, in northeastern Washington State near the border of today’s Colville reservation, has been the most revered of sites to the indigenous nations of the upper Columbia River and Plateau region from time immemorial. Its rich abundance of salmon made this place the center of the universe for the speakers of various Salish dialects. Early written accounts say that the annual solstice gatherings drew between 3,000 and 5,000 people who came to trade, gamble, find mates and reconnect.

Photo by Dina Gilio-Whitaker / Brandon Finley and Crystal Conant look at all the canoes paddling together.

When the Grand Coulee Dam was built, starting in 1933, it flooded the falls, and destroyed the salmon runs, a devastating blow to the hearts of both our cultures and our peoples. It has been at least 60 years—some say more—since the nations have gathered at this site the way they used to.

Marc works as a forest practices coordinator for the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), the primary sponsor of the canoe journey, and D.R. Michel is UCUT’s executive director. UCUT is a collaboration between the tribes of the Colville, Spokane, Kalispel, Kootenai, and Coeur d’Alene Indians, whose mission since 1982 is the protection of natural resources and treaty rights. They told me the story of the canoe journey’s genesis.

“After Felix made his comment about the salmon coming back with the canoes, we started exploring the idea of building the old-style dugout canoes. But it requires old growth cedar trees, and there are almost none of these left anymore in the northwest. By pure coincidence just a couple of months later we heard of a stand of old growth cedar on the Quinault reservation that was being logged,” D.R. told me, the firelight flickering in his eyes.

Photo by Dina Gilio-Whitaker / The Sinixt Canoe was decorated with symbols of the coastal peoples to honor the Quinaults from whom the trees came to make the boats.

UCUT put up the money for the six logs which went to each of the five UCUT tribes. Two went to the Colvilles, the largest of the tribes, adding to one that had been made a few years earlier. Each canoe was made with the participation of community members.

The canoes launched from their various homelands along the Columbia River or one of its tributaries, taking several days to reach Kettle Falls and camping along the way. I was assigned to one of the Colville canoes, the Arrow Lakes—or “Sinixt,” named for one of the Colville bands, the band I happen to descend from. The canoe started at the Arrow Lakes in Castlegar, located across the border in Canada. Today the Sinixt are considered “extinct” by the Canadian government, but we know different.

After several days of paddling in challenging conditions that included rain, hail and a dangerous, log-swallowing whirlpool, the last day presented itself with perfect weather. The paddlers—most of whom were inexperienced at paddling up until now—were tired. But sore muscles gave way to high spirits because this was the day that all the canoes would converge and all the paddlers would be together for the first time.

As we launched from our final docking place, we were greeted by the screech of a bald eagle who followed us a short distance, then landed in a tree and watched us from above. We knew how blessed we were to be participating in this historic event, knowing that our ancestors, too, were watching. We have always been a people of the river and the canoe.

Photo by Dina Gilio-Whitaker / The name of the Sinixt Canoe is carved with the linguistically correct spelling.

Our pride swelled as we paddled not only to the sound of eagles, but to the sound of our language. The Interior Salish dialects are among the most endangered languages on the planet, but thanks to the handful of elderly fluent speakers who are left, and innovative revitalization programs like the Inchelium Language and Culture House and the Salish School of Spokane, more people are conversing and singing in our ancestral languages than at any time in recent history. To revive our ancient paddling cultures and sing the songs of our ancestors was a dream come true.

All of the canoes, including several of the smaller single-person “sturgeon nose” canoes—about 15 in all—converged across the river at historic Mission Point, the site of the original settler fort of the Hudson’s Bay Company (named Fort Colvile). From there we paddled together across the river. Exhausted and exhilarated, we could hear the sound of drumming on the other side as singers sang us in, accompanying the sounds of eagle bone whistles and exuberant war whooping from the boats and the hundreds of people gathered on the beach. Everybody lucky enough to be there was overflowing with pride.

“There just aren’t words to describe this feeling,” I kept hearing people say, tears of joy streaming down faces as people hugged each other and gently touched the beautifully carved cedar canoes.

Later in the day the paddlers gathered for a trading event where no money was allowed, but treasured items were exchanged the way they would’ve been in olden times.

The canoe journey concluded the next day with a salmon ceremony and giveaway. The ceremony is performed to call the salmon back up the river. It will take a lot of work to ensure the salmon’s passage once again, and now we have the canoes. We are one step closer to Felix’s prophecy coming to pass.

Photo by Dina Gilio-Whitaker / Elders gather the people together for the salmon ceremony, calling the salmon upriver through prayer and singing.
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