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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Master Carver Crafts Canoe for Suquamish Family
by Brynn Grimley, Kitsap Sun

SUQUAMISH — Leaning over the center of a partially carved 32-foot-long western red cedar, master carver Ray Natraoro's eyes moved down the grain of the old growth tree. Using a level, string and pencil, Natraoro focused on the center of the monstrous log, trying to determine where cuts should be made to continue its transformation from a 10-ton tree into a classic Salish-style tribal canoe.

The 800-year-old tree and Natraoro are from British Columbia. The tree came from the Elaho Valley, north of Vancouver, B.C., on territory owned by the Squamish Nation.

Natraoro was joined by Gary Gonzales and Simon Reece, two other Squamish members in Suquamish last week. They were in town to carve a dugout canoe for Tana Stobs, a canoe family in Suquamish that includes members of the Suquamish and Port Gamble S'Klallam tribes.

"It's a rare gift, these cedar trees," said Nick Armstrong, a Tana Stobs family member. "We had the word out there that someday we'd like a traditional canoe."

A canoe family is a group of extended family members and close family friends who participate in annual Tribal Canoe Journeys, in which Indians travel from their homes to a common destination within the Coast Salish territory.

The family first participated in the journey in the same year Armstrong's brother Santana was killed in a car accident. The journey gave the grieving family a focus, sister Faith Williams said. They chose Tana Stobs as their canoe family name to honor Santana, whose nickname was Tana. Stobs means man in the Salish language, Williams said.

Previously, members of the Tana Stobs family have used a fiberglass canoe. For this year's event at the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Skagit County, Armstrong and his family will use both the fiberglass model and the one being carved by Natraoro.

"It's pretty exciting because before we'd do switch-outs," Williams said. Because of the canoe family's size — Williams and Armstrong have 32 cousins in the area — members took turns in the one boat.

Now everyone can participate at the same time — including some of the youngest members, like Williams' 6-year-old daughter.

Watching Natraoro and other family members work on the canoe last week, Williams commented on the canoe's presence in the family.

"This canoe is going to be there long after we've all gone," she said.

The canoe is the 18th carved by Natraoro, who was commissioned to carve a canoe for the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The tradition of carving traces back seven generations in Natraoro's family. He previously carved two canoes for the Suquamish Tribe, one in 2001 and another in 2002.

Natraoro uses modern tools, including chain saws and adzes, to shave away at the trunk. The tools replicate the stone adzes and chisels used by his ancestors to build the dugout canoes. Antlers were also used to do the intricate carving work.

But even with the assistance of modern technology — including measuring tools to make precise cuts — Natraoro follows the traditions of his ancestors. The Squamish have a long-standing connection to the western red cedar tree, which they call the "Mother Tree," Natraoro said. Canoe paddles and seats are carved from discarded pieces as the canoe is shaped. Rotted pieces of the trunk are mixed to create the red paint; bark is used for baskets and clothing.

"This tree grew and its life was taken when it was taken down," Natraoro said. "Our energy and thoughts are all positive when we're working on this tree."

When the tree came down tribal members gathered and prayed, he said. It wasn't the tribe's decision to turn the tree into a canoe; the direction came from the tree. After praying and studying the tree, it showed Natraoro what it wanted to become, he said. While he uses his tools to help the canoe take shape, he says all he is doing is following the lines the tree has mapped.

"She's beautiful, you can already see what she's going to become," Williams said. "Emotions are high."

Natraoro hoped to have the canoe 90 percent complete by Monday, when he was scheduled to return home. He plans to return to finish up.

"It's going really fast," Armstrong said. "This canoe is transforming at a much quicker pace. It's exciting."

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