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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 14, 2001 - Issue 40


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Nez Perce Museum Boasts Huge Collection of Ancient Canoes


 by Rebecca Boone Lewiston Morning Tribune-July 1, 2001


Nez Perce Canoe by E.S. Curtis

Nez Perce Canoe by E.S. CurtisSPALDING, ID - At the Nez Perce National Historical Park, two men crouch around a weathered, wooden canoe.

Both work intently, focusing on cracks and structural weaknesses in the weathered wood.

Decades ago, long legs were tucked inside the bed of this canoe, along with baskets of fish or dried meat and furs. Strong arms used paddles to knead the water, traveling along a liquid highway.

"When we think of the Nez Perce traveling, we think of the horse culture," museum curator Bob Chenoweth said. "Well, that's what people have done for probably the last 200 years. But the other nine or 10,000 years people were traveling around in canoes."

The Nez Perce park boasts one of the largest collections of inland canoes. Four vessels in the collection are getting some preservation work done, ensuring the history hidden in the curve of the bow does not rot away with the wood.

"The canoes were getting to the condition that they needed to have some treatment," Chenoweth said. "But at first I wasn't certain about the value. I wanted to make sure the cost was worth it from a cultural point of view."

So when Chenoweth got approval for the $40,000 canoe preservation project, he started researching canoe culture throughout the Northwest. He learned there are essentially two styles of canoe - a lightweight, thin canoe used mainly by tribes in lake regions and the more robust, thick canoe used by the Nez Perce and other tribes traveling rivers with rapids.

Tribal canoe-makers "had a very deep understanding of the river," Chenoweth says. They understood the intimacies of each rapid and turn and knew how to balance sturdiness with maneuverability. They also knew the best places to get the logs for canoes.

"My understanding here is that the Nez Perce didn't routinely chop trees down in order to make canoes. It was more likely and more usual that they would recover trees or logs out of the river. A popular place was what they call the Boom Grounds."

The Boom Grounds is at the end of the historical park, where a bend in the river meant that driftwood and logs often would end up on the riverbanks, Chenoweth said. Indians had a long history of coming there for firewood or canoe logs.

"I think what we have here is something very unique, very significant," he said. "It's kind of a hidden story because it's been overshadowed by the horse. The river is a good source of protein, of course, and it also provided people with a great deal of mobility. They could move around anywhere they wanted and visit relatives or other tribes."

Alan Levitan and Dave Casebolt, both with the National Park Service, spent this spring trying to preserve what is left of the canoes. Some of the boats had long splits in the wood, widespread spots where fungus and rot have set in.

Levitan and Casebolt injected the wood with a resin adhesive that will hold the wood fibers together and added Plexiglas inserts to hold the correct shape. But the work was not restorative, Levitan says.

"The biggest challenge is to figure out what needs to be done. We're just trying to stabilize what we have and prevent future damage."

Levitan normally works at Harpers Ferry Center in West Virginia and Casebolt at a San Francisco park. They are glad the canoes are being protected.

"They're an important part of the native culture - before there were roads, the rivers were the highways," Levitan said. "These kinds of utilitarian things were really not valued all that much by museums before, so many were left to rot."

And though the canoes will never navigate the Clearwater and Snake rivers again to find food and trade goods, they will play an equally important role, Chenoweth says.

"It sheds light onto the water culture. I feel like we need to do a better job of interpreting that culture and this will help us."

Maps by Travel


Nez Perce-Notes by E.S. Curtis

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