Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai and Spokanes unite at ancestral site

KETTLE FALLS—The ambient rumble of drums and singing provided a powerful welcoming to representatives from five tribal canoes crossing the Columbia River here from St. Paul’s Mission sharpening stone to Harder’s Landing Friday.

Tribal leaders, elders, youth, curious spectators and camera-wielding media crowded the final destination as the Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai and Spokane tribes paddled forth in unity. 

Canoe by canoe they landed, raising their paddles in the air to war whoops and high fives, proudly displaying their carved vessels on land prior to a march where each nation held its flag. 

No event like it had been held for more than 80 years, according to officials in attendance. The construction of dams along the Columbia, including the Grand Coulee 100 miles south, prohibited a salmon return from the Pacific Ocean that had been occurring since time immemorial for the tribes—one which was relied upon at places, like Kettle Falls, as a staple source of nutrition.

“One of these days one of these little kids will have witnessed this,” Kalispel elder Francis Cullooyah said, “and will say, ‘I remember that. I remember those people. I remember those songs they were singing as they were coming across paddling.’”

The tribes departed from seven locations since Friday. The Colville Confederated Tribes launched from its aboriginal Arrow Lakes territory in Castlegar, British Columbia, in Inchelium and Grand Coulee. The Coeur d’Alene tribe began its journey at the south end of their namesake lake in Idaho, before stopping at Post Falls and re-entering the water at Little Falls Dam, where the Spokane launched. The Kootenai and Kalispel started at different points of the Pend Oreille River, hauling their canoes to the Northport area to conclude south to Kettle Falls.

Last year, the Upper Columbia United Tribes organization and Quinault tribe coordinated the donation of several 600- to 800-year old cedars for the interior Salish tribes to fashion canoes. 

Next step: The ocean, organizer says

In a private rally of paddlers on the outskirts of St. Paul’s mission, near a traditional sharpening stone boulder, Shelly Boyd was ready to look beyond the week-long journey some tribes took to get there.

“We’re going to the ocean,” she said, as representatives from the Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai and Spokane tribes cheered and war-whooped. “The creeks that feed  into the river are like the arteries to a heart. But the real heart is the ocean. And this is a main artery for the whole ocean. 

“Right now, [the Columbia River] doesn’t just have Teck Cominco giving it stuff,” added Boyd, referring to the Trail, British Columbia mining giant found liable in 2012 for discharging nearly 10 million tons of toxic slag between 1930 and 1995.

“The river has pollution of every sort. And that’s what this work is about. It’s about creating that awareness and cleaning this place up.”

Moments before, members from fellow tribes and canoes cheered from above the steep ridge as the final vessel, Colville’s Nespelem canoe turned the bend into the final stretch. All tribes were to convene prior to crossing the Columbia River for the final meeting at Harder’s Landing—the culmination of an epic journey that spanned hundreds of collective miles between two stares and Canada.

Some like Richard Allen and Taylor Birdtail felt drawn into participation.

“The salmon were waiting for the canoes to get here,” Allen, of the Colville tribes, said. “You just feel like you belong here. You lost your home but you found where you were supposed to be. Somehow, some way I ended up here, and I’m supposed to be here. And it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Birdtail, a member of the Gros Ventre tribe of Montana, saw a call for paddlers on Facebook. “I wasn’t going to do it at first,” she said. “But the last day came and I was like, ‘OK, why not?’”

She ended up being perhaps the only person on the whole journey to ride in two tribes’ canoes. She rode with the Arrow Lakes, who departed in Castlegar, British Columbia, and the Kootenai, which started on the Pend Oreille River in Idaho before hauling its canoe to China Bend Beach near Northport. “My heart’s pretty full,” she said. “Just doing what the tribes around here did... I grew up in Spokane with these interior Salish tribes. I felt accomplished.”

For some canoes, including the Colville-Arrow Lakes and Spokanes, the voyage had terrifying moments.

Annette Matt was the driving force behind the Spokane tribal canoe, which fought violent waves and white waters after departing at Little Falls Dam on the southern border of the tribe’s reservation. “Waves were coming right up to our boat, our canoe; coming right next to us, white waters,” she said. “The tip of the canoe, the bottom of it; it would come out of the water. While we were going on these wakes, we almost tipped three times; really, really close. It was super scary for everyone. 

“One of them did tip but the relief boats are right there and got them back in the canoe and got them going again. All the people involved were critical. The background people did tons of work.”

Crystal Conant, a Colville tribal member who rode with Arrow Lakes, witnessed some close calls with whirlpools on the way down from Castlegar. “It was scary at first,” she said. “We went through some fast waters, some whirlpools and stuff, but we worked together and did great.”

Youth dedicate journey to relatives

For Kale Nissen and Lonnie Simpson Jr., the canoe journey was more than a challenge. It was a symbolic honoring to their family members who passed in 2016.

Simpson carried an oar with his uncle Virgil Seymour’s name on it, inscribed “Virg.” He left with a canoe full of his family members, including father Lonnie, mother DeAnn and brother Jacolby.

The 13-year-old thought about how much the Arrow Lakes tribe and this journey meant to his uncle. And also the recent memories of his uncle Virgil teaching him to drive.

“Honoring my uncle felt pretty good, because he was pretty special,” Simpson said. 

Nissen, 10, was perhaps the youngest person on the journey from any tribe. He dedicated his efforts to his grandmother Shirley Wak Wak.

“It made me feel really good,” he said. “I was sad because we recently lost a family member.”

Nissen’s mother, Crystal Conant, donned artifacts that memorialized both Wak Wak and Seymour. She had a women’s scarf belonging to Wak Wak attached to her paddle, and wore a beaded medallion of a Blue Jay that represented Seymour.

“We saw eagles along the way,” Conant said. “It was following us from time to time. We felt like it was Shirley with us.

“We also spoke a lot of (nselxcin) language and sang songs in the language,” she added. “It was very important to Virgil.”

A spiritual awakening

Gena “Genabug” Redstar felt like a different person after the trip. She started with the Nespelem canoe in Grand Coulee last Friday.

“It was a spiritual awakening; it was enlightening,” she said. “When we came in it was just, like, emotional. We could feel our ancestors with us. You could feel the connection.

“I’m a different person today, and I want to continue it. It’s important to our people; every band, all 12 tribes. I wish everybody could experience that.”

She said she enjoyed cowboy coffee at the different camping stops and a healthy amount of laughter along the way. Her children were able to watch her partake in the journey, which makes her proud. Her uncle, Albert Andrews, greeted her in the nimiipuu language, telling her how proud he was, she said.

“This just made me step up and really want to get into beyond canoe journey and go and help my people and the kids,” she said. “If we don’t all connect and do that, we’re going to lose our people, lose our land. I love going and doing this. I got to honor my family.

“We had the experience of a lifetime.”

The lone Kootenai

A death rocked the Kootenai tribes right before it was set to begin the canoe journey, said Dan Aitken, the only representative of the tribe in Kettle Falls. 

“Something in my soul was telling me to go,” he said.

He was working on his reservation to rehabilitate the sturgeon population when he found out a canoe was being built. Aitken had minor participation in its building, but a major role in the canoe journey.

“Once they finished it, so many things were happening where nobody could an the boat,” he said. “Everybody stayed behind. 

“I decided if nobody's gonna go, I better go. I packed up my stuff and we left the next day, after we test drove the boat one time. I had no idea what i was getting into.”

On the Columbia River, it donned on Aitken that he was where he was supposed to be, “especially here this last stretch from the sharpening stone. It was so powerful. Everything was alive. You could feel all the energy around you. 

As the five tribes gathered at the final destination, he smiled and said, “it wouldn’t be complete without one of us here.”

Coeur d’Alene canoes a family effort

LoVina Louie broke into tears after completing the canoe journey. Many members of her family, including her mother, had a special role in the Coeur d’Alene tribe’s participation in the event.

“My mom and dad [former Colville Business Councilman Deb Louie], our daughter, my brothers and sisters, and Shawn Brigman; we started with a sturgeon nose a year ago with my grant,” Louie said. “When the sturgeon noses touched the waters, you could just feel our ancestors. They were welcoming us home; welcoming us back to who we are as Indian people. 

“And I realized when those canoes touched the water that this was what we have to do to heal our people from drugs and alcohol. This is our way. This is who we are. This is who they tried to beat out of us with boarding schools and historical trauma.  That’s what they were trying to kill and they were pretty damn successful at it. But we’re back.”

Louie struggled to contain the enthusiasm of her daughter, Northstar Lawrence, who was eager to be the first of the tribal canoes to make it across during the final leg.

“She was just kickin’ ass,” Louie said. “I was like, ‘Slow down, Northstar.’ We were supposed to come in together.”

The mother-daughter combination had a special moment on the long journey, Louie said.

“We were just floatin’ along and Northstar said, ‘You know mom, this is going to be one of my best memories with you.’”

Fighting tears, Louie responded, ‘It’s going to be one for me too.’

Healing opportunity buoys Spokane tribal canoe 

Annette Matt, who tans hides among other creative work, spearheaded the Spokane canoe’s completion. She used Facebook and word of mouth to attract participation. Many of those she found were experiencing difficult times, she said.

“Everyone is healing from something very important,” Matt said. “People have lost very important people in their lives. People are recovering from drugs and alcohol. So a majority of our people were struggling with things and I just grabbed ‘em and said, ‘Come on, let’s work on a canoe.’”

One member, Willie Hayes, also known as Wolf, was legally deaf.

“This was like a learning thing for us to be able to speak with him, and learning how to speak with him, and learning where the best sport for him was to sit in the canoe,” Matt said. “It became critical for him to sit in the proper place so we could communicate with him in the canoe.”

Hayes, 30, proudly represented his Spokane tribal family on the journey, and responded to questions using a cell phone. “I rep for my family Hayes and before Hayes is Kia-i-me. And I am the only Hayes here, oldest son in the family. There are only four Hayes left in the name and I am proud my Sleah Willie Hayes and I never met him and I am doing for them and I have a big heart and been sober for 22 months now and want to change life and stay good on the just living the life.”

Matt said the journey healed many of the participants on their canoes.

“Everyone who’s been on the journey with us has been so thankful to be a part of this. They’re all super tired.

“I think what they’ve learned about this journey is unity and strength between all of us tribes being together and meeting. It’s just been an enormous event and I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger.”

Kalispel canoe handles inclement weather, skips Canadian border

Warren Piengkham is the first to admit he didn’t put in as much work on canoe carving as he could have. But he still wanted to be included.

“I went down there once or twice. I assumed they needed somebody to paddle and I was right,” he said. 

“We started on the Kalispel Rez and took a couple breaks going to Ione, Metaline Falls,” he said. “We didn’t want to go through Canada, so we put them on trailers and put them in at Black Sand Beach, north of Northport. Then, we cruised them all the way down here.”

He said his tribal members taught him a lot about his culture along the way.

“We learned how many differnet types of canoes there were and how to make them; heavier ones, lighter ones and what they were better for,” he said. “We learned even more baout what barks other canoes are better for, worse for. None of us really rode canoes. But we learned really fast and worked together in sync.”

They managed to withstand some inclimate weather along the way, including high winds, rain and hail.

“I’d be kind of disappointed if there was sunshine all along the way,” he said, laughing. “It was fun, but I wish I could keep going. I’m sad it’s over.”

Francis Cullooyah and J.R. Bluff sang a song when the canoes landed. Cullooyah was a guest of honor and was invited to say a prayer after all the tribes rallied.

“How many times do our tribes get together like this for a celebration?” he asked. “To see our canoes come in. To see our people paddling those canoes. To have those things which we can carry with us. The goodness of those things keeps our heart in place.”

He noted the lack of elders present for various reasons.

“As you look around, you don’t see many elders,” he said, “but I know that they are here with us. Each and every one of you carry and elder with you. And when we pass on, you are going to be that little child again.”

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