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Carving out their culture

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SNOQUALMIE - In the tradition of their ancestors, two young Snoqualmie tribal members are learning to carve legends into wood.

Damian Gray and Wayne Moses, both 15, are current Mount Si High School students and former Snoqualmie Middle School students. They are working on a cedar panel to be placed just outside SMS's doors as part of the school's Native American focus.

What makes this project unique is the teens are learning an art form that essentially disappeared from their tribe, and they are learning from a famous artist, Ralph Bennett.

Bennett, whose full name is Ralph Alfred Bennett, Goo la'Slacoon (Abalone Fingers), is a fifth-generation woodcarver from the Haida tribe, which live on the Queen Charlotte and Prince of Wales islands in British Columbia. Bennett's art is displayed nationally and internationally, and he has taught art for 28 years.

The expert carver is teaching the students not only about the intricacies of carving and how to care for tools, but how to have a relationship with wood.

"You've really got to be able to read the wood. You have to finesse the material out of there," Bennett told the boys. He will not teach design to the young Snoqualmies - that's a job for their elders.

When completed, the 12-foot-long-by-3-foot-high and 4-inch thick panel will depict a moon, flagged on one side by an eagle and on the other by a crow, creatures significant to Snoqualmie tribal legends. The moon is symbolic of the Snoqualmie Valley, which is often referred to in legends as "Moon Valley," and its original residents as the "Moon People." The entire panel will represent the Valley, and a special border will represent the tribe. Students from SMS's fledgling Native American storyteller class created the panel's design.

"I'm very excited," SMS Principal Jack McCullough said of the panel's completion, which should occur in the coming weeks. "I feel it will bring a sense of pride, a sense of community and history."

The cedar from which the panel is being carved also has special, almost sacred, significance. It was part of a 2,000-year-old tree near Granite Falls in Snohomish County on which was carved a woman called the "maid of the woods." The 30- to 40-foot maid was carved in 1947 by Seattle wood sculptor and timber surveyor Dudley Carter. The carving attracted thousands of visitors.

Three decades later, lightning struck the tree twice and damaged the maid. The cedar was cut down for the creation of a sculpture for Washington's centennial anniversary.

Bennett recently purchased items from the deceased Carter's estate, which included the SMS panel. The panel is but a sliver of the 250-foot-tall and 14-foot-wide tree, and retains a burn mark.

Besides the actual piece of wood, cedar itself has significance to Native Americans. It symbolizes the people, Bennett explained. Cedar was an important material for the tribe because the whole tree can be used. One layer can be used for fire starting, another for carvings, and the inner layer was used to line diapers, as mattress material and twine.

Dresses, capes, baskets and rain hats are also made of cedar. Because of its flexibility, the wood has always been used for Native American canoes, house poles and story panels.

The teens who have worked with the cedar panel every Thursday for weeks are learning the importance of many things, as Bennett tells them stories and shares beliefs about art as they work. Gray hopes to carve his own canoe this summer, and according to Bennett, he's a natural.

"I like the fact that they would like to bring back a tradition that has [disappeared]," Bennett said, adding that the best part of this project is working with the boys. "This is a possibility to teach carving from one tribe to another ... and it's a privilege to have that opportunity.

"It's really important, the idea of original people still being here in the Valley," he added. "To symbolize all of that and just honor one another - that's what art is all about. It expresses hope."

Bennett said that Gray and Moses, as well as all young people, need to understand the traditions of identifying area trees and plants, as well as understand the history of the land. And he hopes they will learn to create art to tell stories to future generations.

"When we're done with our generation and our time, what will we have left behind?" Bennett said. "It isn't just about the wood, it's about the young people. Hopefully they'll pick up [artistic traditions] and leave a trace of their existence."

McCullough agrees. The carving project is part of SMS's focus on the history of the Valley and of the tribe from which it got its name.

"Our Valley is changing all the time with growth and the inclusion of new families, and those new families don't know the history. But the kids will learn the history," McCullough said. "It's more than logging and development; it's knowing that there were native peoples here thousands of years ago. That's part of the history that the community needs to know."

Besides the panel, a group of seventh-graders have signed on as storytellers, to learn and retell Snoqualmie tribal stories to peers and elementary students. Roger Fernandes, Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member, artist and teacher, worked with the class to hone their skills. The students are giving their presentation to Snoqualmie Valley School District's elementary schools this week.

McCullough would like the storytelling and tribal art projects to be ongoing. Both projects were funded in part by King County Landmarks and Heritage and Arts in Education grants. The storytelling is an extension of seventh-grade studies of Washington State and Pacific Rim countries, and Native American studies are currently taught in seventh-grade social studies, literature, language arts and art classes.

"We're hoping to take some of the [Snoqualmie tribal] legends and illustrate them, make them into books for libraries," McCullough said of the next phase of SMS's Native American focus.

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