The Snoqualmie Tribe holds a blessing ceremony for the canoe Northern Dipper on April 22, 2010.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 12/29/2016
  • Essay 20265

On April 22, 2010, the Snoqualmie Tribe holds a blessing ceremony at Lake Sammamish State Park for the Northern Dipper, its newly built ocean-going canoe. The canoe will be used that summer during Canoe Journey 2010, the Paddle to Makah. Members of the Snoqualmie Tribe have been involved in the annual Canoe Journeys since 1989, when Emmett Oliver (1913-2016) led the first journey as part of Washington's centennial celebrations. The Snoqualmie Tribe established its first canoe family in about 2000, bringing together tribal members who worked together to revive cultural practices, including canoe carving, learning traditional songs, weaving, speaking Lushootseed, and, of course, paddling canoes on rivers and the open water of the Salish Sea. Due to a lack of cedar logs of suitable size, the Northern Dipper is a cedar-strip canoe, while others the tribe has carved have been dugout canoes.

A Heritage Nearly Lost

When the Canoe Journeys began with preparations for the Paddle to Seattle in 1989, very few people in the Puget Sound region knew how to carve cedar logs into dugout canoes. Automobiles and highways had long before supplanted the canoe as the easiest mode of travel in the region, and government policies that discouraged or actively suppressed traditional cultural practices had practically eliminated the passing down of carving knowledge from one generation to the next.

Emmett Oliver, a member of the Quinault Tribe, brought carvers together with tribal members to share their knowledge of carving canoes in preparation for 1989's Paddle to Seattle, part of the state's centennial celebration. Members of Coast Salish tribes from the Washington coast and around Puget Sound gathered together and learned how to choose a log, what tools to use, and how to prepare a canoe for the water. Members of the Snoqualmie Tribe who participated learned the techniques from experienced carvers and brought the knowledge back with them. Before attempting to build their own first canoe, they participated in Canoe Journeys in other tribal and intertribal canoes, gaining experience and learning about what was involved in traveling an entire journey, which can last up to a month or longer.

A Heritage Reclaimed

The Snoqualmie Tribe established its own canoe-family program in about 2000. Members worked not just on carving a canoe, but also revived traditional songs and dances and established programs to teach the Lushootseed language, traditional drumming, weaving, and other cultural practices. Canoe-family members participated in community events to share what they were doing. Over time, they established a pea-patch garden, a food and medicine garden, and worked on carving a canoe on tribal member Joe Mullen's property, where there was room to leave a canoe-in-progress over the year it took to finish it.

The Northern Dipper was not the first canoe the Snoqualmie Canoe Family constructed, but it is the largest at 34 feet in length, able to hold 12 pullers, the skipper, and a relief puller. It is a cedar-strip canoe because the builders were unable to find a cedar log large enough to carve out a more traditional dugout canoe. During the launching ceremony at Lake Sammamish State Park on April 22, 2010, tribal members sang and performed a ritual blessing for the canoe.

Preparing for a Canoe Journey

Over the course of a year, the canoe family carries out a series of events to prepare for and participate in the Canoe Journey. Over the fall and winter, canoe-family members gather regularly to learn traditional cultural practices and to prepare materials, such as weaving ceremonial clothing or carving canoe paddles. These programs are open to anyone and are seen as a way to bring people together and strengthen the community, as much as preparation for the summer journey.

In the spring, on Memorial Day, the  canoe family "wakes up" the canoe. A blessing ceremony is held and the family takes the canoe out on Lake Sammamish or Rattlesnake Lake. These waters are easier to negotiate for the paddlers and help them get ready for the more challenging river and saltwater paddling that lies ahead.

From River to Sound

When they are ready to put the canoe in the Snoqualmie River they start at the base of Snoqualmie Falls. River canoes are smaller than the oceangoing ones and have  a shallower draft. They range from 25 to 28 feet long and can carry about four people. Once they reach the lower river in the river canoes, they switch to oceangoing canoes, which are about 34 to 36 feet long and can carry about a dozen people. On the Puget Sound, even though it is rougher and more exposed to winds, the oceangoing canoes are easier to paddle because they are more buoyant in the saltwater.

Each canoe needs a team of people. The lead puller sits at the bow of the canoe and sets the pace of paddling. The lead puller communicates with the skipper, who sits at the back, steers the canoe, and is the most experienced crewmember. Between them, the pullers paddle in time with the lead puller. The skipper decides who will paddle in each canoe during Canoe Journey. The members of the canoe family who are not selected to paddle take care of elders, tend the camps along the way, and help with equipment.

A Powerful Unifying Force

Canoe Journey has been heralded as a key element of cultural revival among Puget Sound's tribes. Preparation for and participation in the journeys and related cultural activities has revived interest in traditional arts and practices. Tribal members coming together into a canoe family, which can be as close or closer than a biological family, has bolstered a sense of community.

At the same time, canoe families and the Canoe Journeys have proven to be equally significant for the individuals who participate. Partly, this is due to opportunity they provide to gain skills and self-confidence. Also important is the increased self-awareness that comes from testing your abilities in difficult circumstances, such as paddling through wind and high waves in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. For some participants, the Canoe Journey program's focus on sobriety has provided an avenue away from substance abuse.

The benefits of cultural revival and individual development have been significant for the Snoqualmie Tribe's youth. They, and others who are learning about their cultural heritage, are able to take pride in that heritage and explore it, while also benefitting from the self-awareness and self-esteem that is built through their experiences.


Emmett Oliver, "Reminiscences of a Canoe Puller," in A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State ed. by Robin K. Wright (Seattle: University of Washington Press and the Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum, 1991), 248-249; Jennifer Ott interview with Joanne Dominick and Angela Wymer, December 14, 2016, Snoqualmie; "Canoe Family Update" Snoqualmie Tribe Newsletter (Summer 2012), Snoqualmie Tribe website accessed December 9, 2016 (; "A New Vessel Connects Tribe to the Past," Issaquah Press, May 5, 2010;  "Slideshow: River Journey Feeds Tribe's Traditions," Snoqualmie Valley Record, July 22, 2009, website accessed December 9, 2016 (; "Snoqualmie Tribe to Bless New Ocean Canoe," Snoqualmie Valley Record, April 30, 2010, website accessed December 10, 2016  (

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You