Blaine resident Ron Snyder flips through a spread in Teacher magazine detailing the three-year process he and others embarked on to build a canoe for the 2012 Paddle to Squaxin. Photo by Kelly Sullivan
After navigating Pacific Northwest’s network of rivers, bays and open ocean for up to two weeks, more than 100 handcarved canoes will converge on the shores of Squaxin Island near Olympia on July 29.
The paddlers will be met on shore by hundreds of well-wishers who will celebrate the annual Paddle to Squaxin, the 23rd landing and potlatch since the first Paddle to Seattle in 1989.
Blaine local Ron Snyder will be onboard the Stephen Phillips, a 22-foot long cedar canoe. Snyder will be one of six paddlers, while his wife Cathy Taggett will be skipper of Condesa, the couple’s 26-foot sailboat. The boat is one of the safety vessels and will carry supplies and possibly relief paddlers.
Sitting aboard Condesa in Blaine Harbor, the sun reflecting off his charcoal sunglasses, Snyder explains the history of the Stephen Phillips. The canoe was built by Snyder’s longtime friend Saaduuts with help from students at The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, the city where Snyder was principal for an alternative school for a number of years.
Snyder and Saaduuts met in the late 1990s. The two have worked on four different canoes together over the past decade, with help from the students from Snyder’s school and The Center For Wooden Boats.
A member of the Haida Nation, Saaduuts began carving canoes in 1996. He is part of the generation that has been reviving the canoe traditions of their ancestors.
After embarking on a spiritual journey, he felt a strong desire to bring balance back toward his nation’s traditions.
When building canoes, Saaduuts focuses on respecting Earth and Mother Nature. He teaches young people that the wood is a gift to learn how to help other people, help themselves and be respectful.
The people of the Haida Nation live primarily off the coast of southern Alaska and on Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Island located on the B.C. coast. Taking after his ancestors, paddling a canoe came very naturally to Saaduuts.
The elders of the coastal tribes believed that thousands of years ago they paddled across the Pacific Ocean to this area, contrary to the widely accepted opinion that they walked over on a land bridge, Snyder said. The tribes have a canoe culture dating back thousands of years.
Each canoe, aside from the Stephen Phillips, has been gifted to a different tribe in the Pacific Northwest. Snyder recounted the story of a 40-foot-long canoe that was gifted in 2004 to an Alaskan Haida tribe where Saaduuts grew up, a community that hadn’t had its own canoe in more than a century.
Snyder said gifting a canoe is part of the Potlatch tradition, which is the act of “giving away your wealth.” Snyder, Saaduuts and the alternative school students followed the traditional method of canoe gifting when they brought the 40-foot Silgaay Gaahlaandaay to the Alaskan tribe.
When gifting a canoe, it can take up to three offers by the gifting tribe before the canoe and its passengers are permitted to make a landing.
Since this particular exchange was prearranged, it only took one request. Once the offer was made, Snyder said the crew pulled away from shore and turned the canoe around. They then paddled in backwards, allowing for a quick escape if the receiving tribe decided to attack. Many of the paddles have sharp tips that can double as weapons if needed.
Back on shore, the crew and community members carried the canoe one mile to the potlatch site while Saaduuts stood inside the lifted canoe beating on a drum and singing. Once there, songs, dances and gifts were exchanged, all part of the old traditions.
The original Paddle to Seattle was the revival of this culture, which had almost been stamped out by laws prohibiting indigenous traditions such as potlatches. As the cultural resurgence developed, those laws were taken off the books and traditional forms of celebration such as Potlatch Protocol were reawakened.
This will be Saaduuts and Snyder’s second year paddling together. The 75-mile voyage will begin at The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, departing on July 23. The journey to the Olympic Peninsula will take five days of traveling at a three knots-an-hour crawl, five to six hours each day.
Saaduuts’ adopted grandson Brant Lodge will be skippering the Stephen Phillips. Lodge helped Saaduuts finish his most recent project, which took an abnormally long five years to complete. The ends of the canoe began to rot while in the process of carving and had to be plugged, which took much longer.
Not yet named, the 38-foot canoe will be gifted to and used by the Nisqually tribe in this year’s paddle. Lodge has gotten this year’s crew together every week to practice canoeing and rehearsing the songs and dances they will perform during the different ceremonies at Squaxin.
Ron Snyder and Cathy Taggett are the owners of The Circle of Trees art studio and homestead on Sweet Road. Snyder has been involved with Northwest Canoe Culture since 1990 and both Snyder and Taggett have been active participants in carving and potlatching canoes as part of a program called Carving Cultural Connections.