Stillaguamish Tribe carve river canoe

By Gale Fiege
Everett, Washington (AP) March 2010

Monty Charlie greets them with his shirt off, sweat on his brow and a chisel in his hand.

Laughing as they get out of the car on this warm February day, Stillaguamish tribal members Shawn Yanity and Jeff Tatro tease Charlie and holler for him to get dressed.

It’s an hour’s drive for Yanity and Tatro from their Arlington homes to this house on the Lummi reservation near Bellingham. The cousins keep making this trip in an attempt to reclaim their past.

Around back, the men greet artist Felix Solomon, who owns this home and studio along a flat road through an old cow pasture.

On the patio sits the reason for the trip.

From a huge cedar log, Solomon is carving the Stillaguamish Tribe’s first new dugout river canoe in more than a century.

It’s a labor-intensive project and Yanity and Tatro and neighbor Charlie are there to help. They stand for hours to work on the 22-foot canoe, which is elevated on blocks of Styrofoam.

As they pull drawknives across the bottom of the red cedar canoe, a sweet aroma held within the wood for centuries is released as the shavings and chips fall at their feet.

It’s hard work, but there is time for coffee and jokes among the men.

“I roll my eyes when people stop by and ask if I’m going to carve anything on the canoe,” Solomon says of spectators seemingly oblivious to the work involved in carving a boat from a heavy, ancient log.

They all laugh.

“Yeah, like they want you to carve a totem pole coming out the side of it,” Tatro says.

Eagles perch in the cedar and alder trees that grow around the backyard pond Solomon’s grandfather dug to water his cattle. The birds chatter while the carvers smooth the canoe’s sleek shape. It seems that whenever they are carving these days, the eagles are watching.

“Carving is spiritual work,” Yanity says. “It makes you wonder if the eagles aren’t the eyes of our ancestors guiding us through this project.”

When the Stillaguamish Tribe suffered its diaspora before the turn of the last century, much was lost. With no land to call their own after the Homestead Act and lacking federal recognition even though they had signed the Point Elliott Treaty, the Stillaguamish people began to scatter. They married out of the tribe, sought jobs away from home and began to forget the traditional ways.

Though the tribe received federal recognition in 1976, the journey to regain the cultural life of the Stillaguamish continues.

Last summer, the 200-member tribe celebrated its first salmon-welcoming ceremony in more than a generation.

Now, the tribe’s new river canoe will play a key role in this summer’s salmon ceremony on the banks of the Stilly.

“We’ll never get back to the way it was,” Yanity said. “But we will celebrate our past and the coming day when we launch our new canoe, carved from a tree that was growing when the ancestors walked among the old cedar forests.”

Last year, a logging company unearthed seven old-growth cedar logs from an old road bed in the Stillaguamish River watershed near Arlington.

Buried for more than a century, the 300-year-old logs were in good shape and big enough for dugout canoes.

The logs were offered to Solomon, the Lummi artist.

Soon after, Stillaguamish chairwoman Sandy Klineburger visited Solomon’s studio and commissioned him to carve a canoe for her tribe from one of the logs.

The emerging cedar canoe is a gift from God, returning to help heal the Stillaguamish people, Yanity said.

Yanity daydreams often about an auntie, an affectionate title he uses for female elders and ancestors. This ancient relation is one of the “Stulagwabsh,” the people of the river, as the Stillaguamish called themselves.

She climbs into her canoe to go upriver in search of berries, cattails, roots and cedar bark. This muse brings to Yanity thoughts of medicinal sustenance, traditional ceremonies and the leading of the Creator.

Like many Stillaguamish tribal members, Yanity, 44, grew up away from his family’s river valley homeland near Arlington.

Yanity was reared in the Tacoma area and spent some of his childhood near Fairbanks, Alaska. There a native Alaskan neighbor taught him how to gather food from the wilderness. He learned to hunt and thought about growing up to be a forest ranger or a smoke jumper. While in high school in Gig Harbor, Yanity volunteered at the local state fish hatcheries, and later found full-time work there.

After moving to Arlington with his wife and their two oldest sons in the mid-1990s, Yanity’s passion turned to finding out all he could about his Stillaguamish heritage.

“Shawn has really caught on to all the Indian stuff,” said his 86-year-old grandma, Stillaguamish elder Lavaun Tatro. “He knows more about it than I do. I’m very proud of him.”

From 2004 to 2009, Yanity served as tribal chairman, and he continues his work as a member of the tribe’s council.

“Because our culture sat on the shelf for so long, the canoe is a huge deal for our tribe,” Yanity said. “The thing is, tribal sovereignty isn’t about land use, gambling casinos and jurisdictions. In its pure form, it’s about our songs, stories and practices. It’s our identity and our quality of life.”

The tribal council had been talking about carving a canoe for a long time.

“I can’t wait to get our kids out in it,” he said. “They are the future carvers and canoe pullers.”

A primary mode of transportation, shovel-nose canoes were the go-to boats, “the pickup trucks,” of the river tribes near the Salish Sea, Solomon said.

The Salish Sea region, which includes Puget Sound and the Juan de Fuca and Georgia straits, was home to salmon fishermen, people who depended on the cedar tree to provide the durable materials needed for everyday life.

Flat bottoms, wide bodies and blunt stems and sterns allowed the canoes to carry big loads and float easily in rough waters.

To research Coast Salish river canoes, Solomon traveled to regional and national museums. He took special interest in canoes displayed outdoors in nearby places such as Darrington, Ferndale and La Conner. He photographed, felt and took measurements of the old vessels.


A former commercial fisherman, Solomon, 52, ran a lunch cart after the salmon runs declined. He began his art career a dozen years ago, first making bentwood cooking boxes, bowls and spoons.

In his sculptural work, Solomon purposely stays away from the Haida, Kwakiutl and Tlingit styles that most people recognize as being Northwest Indian art forms. He is well-regarded for his efforts to remain true to the simpler, but equally beautiful Coast Salish designs.

Solomon, now well-known regionally, was filmed in his studio by a Smithsonian Institution documentary crew a few months ago.

A visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in 2007 gave Solomon a chance to photograph the Smithsonian’s collection of Lummi and other Coast Salish art and artifacts.

“It’s my goal to bring Lummi art back to life through my carving,” Solomon said. “This is my homage to my ancestors, my community, my beliefs and the land on which I’ve spent my life.”

Solomon’s work is part of what is being hailed a renaissance of Coast Salish art, said Robin Wright, curator of Native American Art at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.

The Stillaguamish Tribe also is being praised for its canoe project, Wright said.

“Globally, there is a revival of canoe culture, so it’s absolutely wonderful that the tribe has embarked on this,” Wright said. “Felix is certain to do a great job, and I can’t wait to see the canoe.”

Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, agreed. The Stillaguamish canoe, a first in a century for the tribe, also is probably the first new river canoe in nearly 75 years throughout the entire region, she said.

“The launch of the Stillaguamish canoe will be a social event that should bring many native people together,” she said.

Now nearly three months into the Stillaguamish canoe project, Solomon recently finished the outside and turned the boat over. He plans to drill deep holes to guide him as he uses an adze to extract the wood from the inside of the canoe.

“Our ancestors had to be math whizzes and physics geniuses,” said Solomon, who donned his reading glasses to take a close look at the lines of the canoe. “The work here is evolving and it’s in process, but it’s a blessing and an honor to do this for the Stillaguamish people.”

Cameron Yanity, 7, visited Solomon recently and picked up cedar shavings for a school art project. With 100 wood chips, he designed a scene of a canoe and cedar trees.

His brother, Daemon, 10, got a chance to help carve the canoe.

“It was fun carving, and I can’t wait to do it again with my dad,” Daemon said.

This makes his father very happy.

“We definitely will take what we have learned here and share it,” Shawn Yanity said.

At a gathering a couple of years ago, Yanity was talking with Vi Hilbert, a respected Upper Skagit elder known internationally for her efforts to preserve Coast Salish cultures. Hilbert, who died in December 2008, is credited with reviving Lushootseed, the Coast Salish language shared by many tribes in the Puget Sound region.

Yanity lamented to her that night that while he and others at Stillaguamish were learning to carve, no elders in the tribe remained who could teach the traditional art form.

“Then you are the Stillaguamish carvers,” Hilbert told Yanity.

Before he could argue, she asked if he spoke Lushootseed.

Having taken language class from Hilbert, Yanity answered that, well, he knew some words and phrases.

“Do you speak Lushootseed?” she asked again, firmly.

Then he understood.

“Yes, I speak Lushootseed,” he said, “and I am a Stillaguamish carver.”