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Returning Canoe Culture through Experimental Forests

IDAHO — Historically, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho navigated the waters of the interior northwest using the white pine sturgeon-nose canoe. For the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the canoe was not only a pragmatic means of transportation but also an integral component of community cooperation, health and expression. Its construction required labor intensive gathering of forest material, including tree bark from western white pine and bitter cherry, limbs from Rocky Mountain maple, roots from ponderosa pine, resin from pines and fat from bears. Modernized travel replaced these canoes over time. However, in recognition of the empowering benefits of building and navigating canoes, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is returning to its traditional canoe culture.

This summer, under the direction of canoe maker Shawn Brigman of the Spokane Tribe, members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe identified and harvested bark from a western white pine from the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station Priest River Experimental Forest with assistance from Luke Hixson, Idaho Panhandle National Forest, Bob Denner (retired) and Russ Graham, Ben Kopyscianski and Marcus Warwell from RMRS. Brigman used the bark to construct a traditional sturgeon-nose canoe in the pointed nose style while relating his methods to volunteers from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

This is the first canoe in more than 100 years constructed using the traditional bark from western white pine by indigenous peoples from the Lake Coeur d’Alene region. Tribal members successfully launched the canoe during a blessing ceremony on Lake Coeur d’Alene at the Water Potato Day Festival in late October.

Following this summer’s collaborative success, planning and construction for future canoes are underway, again utilizing resources from RMRS experimental forests. One group, under the guidance of canoe maker Bill Brustar from Sandpoint, Idaho, and led by Coeur d’Alene Tribe member Peter Mahoney, has begun construction of a second sturgeon-nose canoe in the blunt nose style. The Deception Creek Experimental Forest will supply the bark for this canoe, and others to follow. Deception Creek’s white pine stands exhibit characteristics that are ideal for making traditional canoes. Another group will harvest traditional and cultural materials from Priest River Experimental Forest. All told, the tribe will produce three more canoes over the next year.

This effort is just one facet of a burgeoning collaboration with the Forest Service.

Successful canoe launch on Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Forest Service photo by Philip Stevens.

Canoe maker, Shawn Brigman (right) explains his approach for design of the traditional sturgeon-nose canoe to Forest Service Geneticist, Marcus Warwell (left) in his studio in Plummer, Idaho. Forest Service photo by Mary Ann Miller.