More than 150 years after Seattle’s government tried to ban Native residents and more than 50 years after Native activists embarked on a campaign to regain waterfront access in the city, a space dedicated to Coast Salish canoe culture is about to take shape on the shore of Lake Union.
The United Indians of All Tribes Foundation will hold a ceremony Friday to bless the construction of the new Canoe Carving House, which is scheduled to break ground later this year. The 1,200-square-foot structure on the western edge of Lake Union Park will be a place to carve, store, launch and educate visitors about traditional canoes made from cedar trees.
Located in the middle of tech-powered Seattle, below a thicket of glass and steel towers, the Canoe Carving House should serve as a reminder, said Mike Tulee, executive director of United Indians. Native people have always lived in the city, “but you wouldn’t know it just by walking down the street,” he said.
“There’s very little Native cultural presence in the city, especially in the heart of Seattle,” Tulee said. “We’re trying to change that.”
In one sense, the $4.7 million project dates to 1970, when Native activists like Bernie Whitebear staged a nonviolent takeover at Fort Lawton in an attempt to secure land the federal government was trying to give away. The occupation of what became Discovery Park birthed United Indians, an organization for all urban Native people, and led to the creation of the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, where United Indians is based.
But the activists also wanted waterfront access for canoes, Tulee said. The activists initially sought property as close as possible to Daybreak Star, but the terrain was problematic, so they and city officials looked at other sites, he said. They ultimately pivoted to Lake Union, but Whitebear died in 2000 and the project stalled until Tulee joined United Indians in 2017, he said.
“I started talking with city officials, county officials, state officials,” said Tulee, an enrolled member of Yakama Nation with Coast Salish roots through his mother. “Little by little, they came around.”
The project is also connected to deeper history. Most people who visit Seattle and many who live here don’t know that before non-Native people came, “there were 17 villages in this area and 93 longhouses,” Tulee said.
At that time, canoes were “the primary method of transportation for our people, whether traveling in the rivers, the lakes, the Salish Sea or the ocean,” with a special type of canoe for each type of waterway, said Willard Bill Jr., an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe whose ancestors include Cheshiahud, a Duwamish chief on Lake Union who lived through the arrival of non-Native people to the area in the 1800s.
The Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 compelled many Native people to move to reservations, and non-Native Seattle leaders even passed a short-lived law in 1865 banning Native people from living in the city. But accounts say Cheshiahud managed to live by Lake Union into the 20th century.
That history is a “key piece for me,” said Bill Jr., who grew up in Seattle, is a canoe skipper with the Muckleshoot Tribe and intends to participate in Friday’s ceremony. “It’s so critical for our young people to have access and also for the general public … to access authentic Native culture from this area.”
In local Native culture, people are closely connected to trees and through those trees to canoes, said Ken Workman, a Duwamish Tribe council member who called the siting of a carving space on Lake Union “absolutely fantastic.”
The new structure will be a “contemporary interpretation of a longhouse,” with large timbers, cedar cladding, a large room for indoor carving and an overhang for outdoor carving, said Bruce Arnold from Jones & Jones Architects. The building will also have a staff room, restrooms and a planted roof where blue camas will blossom each spring, Arnold said.
United Indians will operate the Canoe Carving House, with some details still in the works, Tulee said. There will be carving demonstrations and classes, with experts to teach visitors about Coast Salish canoes, he said. The structure is steps from a gravel beach where canoes will come ashore and depart. The site has soil with debris from an old mill and is in a zone that could be unstable during earthquakes, so the construction will include installing support pilings deep underground, Arnold said.
The project is using city, county, state and federal funds, with construction scheduled to occur between fall 2023 and fall 2024, according to the city’s Parks Department. United Indians is now raising money for a second building at the site, called the Welcome House, which could host educational displays, a kitchen and an events space. Together, the Canoe Carving House and Welcome House would be known as the Northwest Native Canoe Center.
There was a period when Coast Salish carving as a way of life almost ceased, Bill Jr. said. Yet the practice survived and is making a comeback, he said.
“Turning a chunk of cedar into a canoe” is hard work, but paddling a hand-carved canoe through the water is a special experience, said Tyson Simmons, a Muckleshoot carver. “I don’t think there’s anything better.”
Simmons expects to spend time at the new Canoe Carving House and said he hopes the “long overdue” Seattle project helps sustain his craft.
“We’re still here,” he said, “and we’re still carving.”
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