For me this story began six years ago when I was asked to participate in a potlatch – the traditional gifting celebration that anchors the indigenous culture of our region. This particular potlatch coincided with the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, and was hosted by descendents of the people who greeted the explorers here at the Pacific.
Why was a pale-skinned pup asked to stand beside Northwest Indian elders, overwhelmed with humility in front of 250 people? Because the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes wanted a member of the local press to serve in the formal role of witness.
The historical context of that role humbles me. Conquest of this continent was often scouted by my kind — scribes who tell stories on paper. It can be argued that Lewis and Clark were journalists, dispatched to gather written intelligence for empire builders.
By contrast, indigenous people of the Northwest cleave to oral traditions. Though it surprised me at the time, I now understand why ten minutes into the potlatch I was asked to put away my pad and pen. My challenge was to watch and listen, with pure attention, then give an honest account from memory.
Since then I’ve written a number of columns in local newspapers about what I witnessed at that event. I’ve described how gifts were given in a ritual way, to join together people and tribes in a web of generosity.
At the center of those gifts was an old-growth cedar, gifted by the Quinault Indian Nation. Many Clatsop-Nehalem people who were displaced from their homeland went to live with the Quinault, who welcomed them. The gift tree was carved into a 32-foot seaworthy canoe, with guidance from a master carver trained in traditional native canoe making. This was made possible in part through federal grant funding.
The ceremonial presentation of that tribal canoe was a centerpiece of the potlatch. Everything about it was carefully thought out, including the timing to coincide with the bicentennial. For the Clatsop-Nehalem, their new canoe was reparation for one that was stolen from them by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The vessel’s significance to the recovery of Indian heritage was newsworthy, especially in light of the timing. Yet despite sweeping press coverage of the bicentennial, the canoe was barely mentioned beyond my local columns. As often happens, truth was buried beneath a mainstream narrative. The cross-country adventures of famed white explorers, re-enacted by men in costume, brushed over the fact that those celebrities were also thieves.
So it goes, as it has for hundreds of years. The people who have lived here for millennia continue their work of cultural reclamation, undaunted by the gap between what’s written and what’s done. Like returning salmon, the Clatsop-Nehalem are determined to regenerate their relationship with their homeland.
This was clear during the past year. The tribes published a beautiful and informative book titled “The Journey of the Clatsop-Nehalem Canoe,” written by local artist Roberta Basch. Last July, Clatsop-Nehalem and Warm Springs families joined together to participate in a canoe gathering located in Swinomish, Washington. They paddled 407 miles and camped 22 nights in order to celebrate their culture with other native people.
Not long after that journey, the canoe story took a very strange turn. Members of the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes were surprised by an article in the Daily Astorian (September 21, 2011). The press announced that the family of explorer William Clark was making a public gift of a new canoe to replace the one that was stolen by their ancestor’s expedition. Five days later a second article reported on this gifting.
Here’s the stunner: the Clark family gave it to the Chinook, a neighboring people who did not own the original canoe that was stolen. Moreover, news coverage advanced the claim that both the canoe and the story of its theft belonged to the Chinook. The press even referred to the Clatsop chief who suffered the theft as “Chinook” Chief Coboway.
Stories are a core part of human identity, as integral to the people of the Pacific Northwest as potlatches, cedar, salmon, and seagoing canoes. Understandably, a strong corrective action was requested by the Clatsop-Nehalem.
To date, that appeal has gone unanswered. Instead, the Associated Press spread the fallacious story to news outlets around the country. The impact of this coverage has been conveyed to me in writing by tribal member David Stowe, a 7th generation descendent of Clatsop Chief Coboway.
“It was shocking, surreal, and disturbing to me personally to see a member of my family, Chief Coboway, being referred to as a member of another tribe with no mention of the Clatsop tribe he belonged to,” writes Stowe. “The entire tribe is very unhappy with this effort to erase our tribal heritage, and is determined to put an end to this misinformation and get the true story published.”
Who among us would not be equally offended if our cultural heritage were displaced in this manner?
The situation grieves me, but not because I feel sorry for anybody. The more I learn about the Clatsop-Nehalem, the more assured I am of their resilience. The expropriated story of a stolen tribal canoe will not weaken their cultural revival.
What’s less certain is the future of a tribe we call the American press. Our integrity as witnesses is in need of repair, as evidenced by this and other stories. Can we reclaim our role as truth-tellers?
If so, part of our upstream journey involves a special canoe, gifted in a traditional way at a Clatsop-Nehalem potlatch.