Wednesday, December 11, 2013


This is a story about a canoe, and an event which reaches back twenty decades, or eight generations of human time in the genealogist’s terms. While it has lain dormant in our nation’s history, it has remained unforgotten in the minds and very culture of a small group of citizens whose legacy is that of a tiny Native American tribe whose roots reach far back in geologic time.

            As pointed out in an earlier column recounting the arrival of the Lewis and Clark expedition on the Pacific Coast in 1805, it was with the help of the friendly Clatsop people that they were able to survive during those winter months, and for whom they named the fort they erected there and left as a gift when they departed. The Clatsops were not strangers to Europeans, since they had previously met and traded with ocean-going ships and sailors, a background which invested them with a certain amount of trust in white men as well as familiarity with a language very different from their now-extinct Chinookian dialect.

            Despite the friendliness of these native peoples, there was always a sense of tension – at least on the part of the expedition leaders who had less contact than some of their men with the tribe’s hunters and fishermen. The very term “Clatsop” meant “place of smoked salmon”, and it was a local knowledge of catching fish from the sea and hunting game from the woods which had served the Clatsops for so long and now benefited the visitors from the East.

             At the center of the Clatsop economy lay their unique ability to convert huge cedar logs into large canoes capable of challenging rough seas and great distances, and the most valuable member of each village was a master canoe carver upon whose handiwork everything depended. Since it took from two to three years of curing, cutting, steam-firing and hand-carving to produce a single craft, such a canoe’s value to a village, let alone the entire tribe was nearly incalculable. Meriwether Lewis had long wished to obtain one of these canoes whose sea-worthiness was legendary, but possessed neither sufficient wealth in trade goods to purchase one nor a comprehension of its life-or-death value to a people whose cultural roots he may not have understood.

            Using the pretense of “getting even” with Clatsop hunters he claimed had infringed on elk carcasses belonging to his own men, Lewis arranged for his party to “appropriate” the coveted canoe as they departed the area on their return journey in 1806.

            Our library books may have succeeded in overlooking or marginalizing this little piece of history, but not the descendants of those long-ago Native Americans. In fact it has weighed so heavily on their sense of tribal honor that they decided to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark “Corps of Discovery” by producing a “replacement” canoe the old fashion way, at the hands of a present-day Master Builder, to be dedicated and given to a “Canoe Family” at a Potlatch gathering of today’s Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes in time for the 200th celebration. (Even after locating a suitably cured cedar tree log, the build took two years to accomplish.)

            After a sacred cleansing ceremony and a prayer of thanksgiving to The Creator, and with tables groaning under the weight of the traditional dinner of salmon, clams, deer, venison soup and huckleberries and a mutual exchange of gifts, the master of ceremonies addressed the hundreds of people gathered around the shiny canoe: “Now the story told by Lewis and Clark Corps. of Discovery, and the Clatsop/Nehalem people about the stolen canoe has been made right and has a good ending”.

            An ironic footnote: Despite promises to the contrary, the United States government has never seen fit to grant Tribal Nation status to this small group of Native Americans without whose assistance the Lewis and Clark expedition might well have been a “one-way” adventure.

Overlooking the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon, a reproduction of the traditional canoe of the Salish people greets modern-day visitors.            Al Cooper photo
So intrinsic to the culture at the center of their heritage is the cedar canoe, that its profile dominates the official symbol of the Clatsop/Nehalem Confederated Tribes today.       Clatsop/Nehalem Confederated Tribes

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