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A Healing Journey - Carving A Canoe

"For thousands of years, the Nimiipuu people piloted their canoes along the tumbling waters of the Snake River. But after dams were built and the river choked off, a tradition was lost for over 100 years. Until now…"


I like the part about carving the wood but I also like the artistic aspect of them I still think about it when it was just a log, now it's taking a shape.  To me, it's a unique gift, you know, like tonight there's nothing else like this going on anywhere this reservation I'm sure. I think it's a good opportunity for people to learn something that was gone from our culture and our tribe for 100 years. 

My name is Julian Matthews and I'm enrolled Nez Perce Tribal Member NImipuu. I kind of have been coordinator, I guess you could say, for the canoe project. When I first started the canoe project I didn't really know who would show up or if we even get it done. We had all kinds of people coming through that wanted to check it out because like it's the first one in like 110 years on this reservation. 

We could have just started carving a canoe and just did it wherever at someone's house and, you know, did it on our own thing but it's not just you know carving a canoe, we're affecting life. 

This is a canoe that I have that I made the paddles for, but this is a canoe I got when I was on one of my trips back east. It’s a birch bark canoe that I thought was beautiful but I made these paddles to go inside of it. We have been here for over 10,000 years. Nimipuu is what the Nez Perce originally called themselves, it means “we the people.” When the French came along, they saw somebody with a ring in their nose, the term “ne per se” in French is “pierced nose” so they called us Nez Perce. 

That's not a name we would choose. The push to be assimilated, it took away a lot of our things that we need to get back. Without these things that our culture and traditional we have no tribe. It takes a strong people to defy the odds if you will. 

I was only 18, 20, 19 when I had my son. I knew it was something that I wasn't really ready for and there was something that I couldn't fail at. I didn't have a father growing up, I had a grandfather who was like my father figure and he passed away when I was 10. I didn't learn the things I needed to learn. I've gone down the wrong path for a while. I was just lost and like I almost died a few times and I realized what I was doing was everything I hated. Having a son, you know, that really changed me but that again at the same time I didn't change until he was older. All the suffering our ancestors went through, you know, the pain and the injustice that was brought upon them, you know, we're still living with the effects of that through generational trauma. We're standing in front of lower granite dam, the dam that flooded out my ancestral home lands behind me, that's where my great-grandfather was born in a cave that's submerged under water right now.

It’s always a real powerful feeling you get returning to these places. I feel I was robbed a piece of my history and a piece of myself because I can't see where my family came from due to this dam. It's a little overwhelming sometimes when you just sit and reflect on how much damage these dams have caused and you ask yourself for what? 

The one thing that intertwined this whole experience of carving the canoe with is the free-flowing River. Up here on this end of the river, our traditional rights to hunt fish and gather are really being affected because of the dam. So we're trying to intertwine the whole canoe experience with the environment and how a travel and transportation in a canoe, on the water, is really as a part of us, is a part of our lifestyle. We want to be able to go on that river with our canoe and be unimpeded but right now with those four dams we can’t. 

When I heard about the canoe project it made me want to be involved I never built a canoe before and so this is a pretty exciting project for both of us. He'd never worked with wood either or been paddling and he's carving his own paddle and he's pretty pretty good at it. 

It's pretty fun because we're getting a workout and we're also making history together. I understand how big it is but knowing that you're the first kid to help make a canoe and make your own paddle, it's really exciting and knowing that you're one of the first kids to do something in a hundred years.

It makes me glad to bring the canoe back to our people when it hasn't been here for so many years and all of a sudden here we are. 

I just didn't know for sure if we would do it and get it done. I think that's why I keep it back. those kids are really inspirational to me because every time you hear them over two blocks from here and you just hear them come, you know. They just came rushing over there and I think that really gave me a lot of impetus is having those kids energy coming. 

I set aside that time every week to work on a canoe, I don't put anything on my calendar, I make sure I get there and we have food that we provide for the children. To us this is a tribal thing it's not just you know one person doing this for themselves to make money or anything it's us building something for our people and for our community.

Some of the children, the main course of their meal that came to was when we would feed him at the canoe, otherwise they may not have gotten a good meal at home. So it was important for us to cook a meal for them to really let them know you know they had somebody out there that cared for them in their hearts. 

That's what's nice about having this right in the center of the tribal facilities so the kids walk over here from the school and they are really into it. It’s really exciting and it's nice to see when they come here. It made me realize and other people that it's more like a process or an experience rather than just carving a canoe. We did have people that didn't think we could get this canoe done, and those children believed in their hearts that we could do this and, to me, if they start feeling that about life and start thinking this is doable and that we did this, what else can we do. 

The canoe really brought us closer because it opened up our minds and our hearts into what we were doing. We put a lot of energy into what we're making. It just brought us together. 

It's fun to run up and be ahead of my dad and just leave him into dust. 

I'm so proud of those two. I've watched them side-by-side the full length of the canoe building and, to me, they've gotten much, much closer and they've got a better understanding of their life in their , their history and their culture. It has renewed their spirits. He's teaching him the balance of himself and showing him there is a balance that you can have and be able to survive for himself when he becomes an adult. 

It's important to have a father and to me, as a man, he's pretty strong man. my dad taught me to stay motivated because he can't just start something and not finish it. 

After 113 years of not having canoe on travel on Naz Perce waters, our canoe was launched with the help of other tribes that were there to support us. 

I think that some of the ties with the Nez Perce people that worked on the canoe that there's a familyship now with them and they feel closer together now that we've made it through this journey. They know they had a big piece in this history and they know that now the journey has started that they can bring back other things that we've had before that are now in the past but are awakened again. 

The canoes tie us back into being stewards of the rivers that not only sustain us but the environment around us too. 

The canoe is kind of one aspect of it, I mean it's really important that we you know made to commit me and got it done and it if you make a commitment then really there's nothing that can stop you, in my opinion. 

It's gonna have to take the removal of those dams to get back to where we need to be. I think some of the traditional sites that we've had in the past would return and probably be more powerful. Other things can be gotten back that were buried for so many years and the canoe is just one hope that we had and one dream that we had and it can lead to many others in the future I'm sure.

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