UW News

April 24, 2023

Awakening the canoe: UW Canoe Family prepares for this summer’s Tribal Canoe Journey

For months, the students have come to the Burke Museum classroom at least once a week to carve canoe paddles from yellow cedar.

With only hand tools to shape the wood, the students – mostly University of Washington undergraduates, as well as a few alumni, faculty and staff – carve the traditional Coast Salish paddles not for themselves, but for a canoe, the Willapa Spirit.

They are also part of the first UW Canoe Family, a registered student organization whose members will participate in this summer’s Tribal Canoe Journey, the Paddle to Muckleshoot. The journey, an event founded by Quinault elder Emmett Oliver as the Paddle to Seattle in 1989, brings together tribal and First Nations participants to ply Northwest waters in traditional canoes. This year’s journey is the first since 2019, due to the pandemic.

On April 21, members of UW Canoe Family, the Department of American Indian Studies and others celebrated the Willapa Spirit Honor Canoe with a Canoe Awakening ceremony. They carried the canoe – a promised gift to the UW from the Oliver family – from the ASUW Shell House to Union Bay.

But first, there has been nearly a year of meticulous paddle carving under the guidance of Philip H. Red Eagle (Salish/Dakota). Red Eagle, who was instrumental in continuing the tradition of the Tribal Canoe Journeys, is the Native knowledge-in-residence coordinator for the UW Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies. His role at the UW funded by the Mellon Foundation, Red Eagle created the paddle design and worked with students on the use of tools such as the crooked knife and the adze. The work is meant to be careful and focused, but also to foster community and appreciation for tradition, for not all of the students have been able to connect to their Native culture in the past.

“It’s amazing to see the commitment and dedication of the students,” said Todd Clark (Wailaki), programs manager for the Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies and a member of the paddle-carving class. “It’s good for our Native students to work in this world and still do the academics and all those other things of campus life. Canoe Family is a connection to who you are, your family, your tribe and all the other tribes.”