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Canoe Family builds on tradition Group passing on ancestral ways

Members of the Snoqualmie Tribe’s Canoe Family, Jessy Lucas, Wayne Graika, Bruce Larson and John Mullen, build a new canoe. The family plans to make its canoe journey down the Snoqualmie River this summer. - Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Members of the Snoqualmie Tribe’s Canoe Family, Jessy Lucas, Wayne Graika, Bruce Larson and John Mullen, build a new canoe. The family plans to make its canoe journey down the Snoqualmie River this summer.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

Using an adze made by hand with a wooden shaft and a recycled steel blade, Snoqualmie Tribe Canoe Family member Bruce Larson works alongside two young men a third of his age, passing on some very old traditions.

The history coming to life before them is a dug-out canoe, the third to be made by the Snoqualmie Tribe’s growing group.

Encompassing members from age 5 to 59, the Canoe Family takes aged logs of cedar or other woods, and reshapes them into river- or ocean-going dugouts, made mostly by hand.

“I try to keep things traditional,” said Larson, “especially for the younger people, on how to do this.”

Tribe Youth Coordinator John Mullen said the program gives the Tribe’s young people a positive, constructive outlet, with lessons for living and career that can last a lifetime. The entire group works as one.

“We’re all family,” Mullen said. “We all make decisions together.”

Larson’s adze may not be electrically powered, but the steel blade is deceptively sharp. Used with skill, it can make the shavings fly.

By using tools like these, Larson said, the Tribe’s young people not only learn how to make a canoe, “they start to learn who they are.”

Working on a canoe, he said, has greatly helped his own health.

Before a single cut is made, Larson spends time with the log, getting a sense of it. In a sense, the tree talks to him.

A log’s own intricacies make each canoe unique.

“We’ve had times when the tools didn’t want to cut, or the saw didn’t want to start,” Larson said. “Sometimes, we really need to change the design,” based on an unforseen crack, flaw or feature.

“You can see all the different changes. It’s incredible to see the process, from start to finish,” said Canoe Family member Jessy Lucas. “It’s amazing to be out here on the water, in something we’ve created.”

When the time comes to name the canoe, it is blessed and sung to by a chief or Tribal elder, who comes to the canoe and talks to its makers before issuing a name.

On Tuesday, July 1, members of the Canoe Family took their new canoe out on the water for the first time.

When a canoe hits the water, that’s the moment Mullen lives for.

“Once I get in the water, the whole world comes to a screeching end,” he said.

The river, he said, was traditionally the tribes’ freeway.

“It’s our culture,” he said. With the canoes, young people “see how our ancestors used to connect.”

• The Snoqualmie Tribe Canoe Family tentatively plans to launch two river canoes for a journey to Lake Sammamish on Thursday, July 10, if river conditions cooperate. They will start from a launch near Fish Hatchery Road and camp out during the journey downstream.

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