USK, WA — It was a “super surreal” feeling for two young Salish women who took the first canoe journey for the Bitterroot Salish of the Flathead Nation in nearly 100 years this past weekend in Usk Washington.
Rose Bear Don’t Walk and ArriAnna Matt represented the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as volunteer paddlers. They joined canoe families and river warriors on the third annual Kalispel and allied tribes on the “Remember the Water” four-day canoe journey that began July 31 at Priest Lake, Idaho and ended on August 3, at the Kalispel Indian Reservation in Washington at the Usk annual powwow grounds.
Although the CSKT sister team joined the other paddlers on the last leg of the journey on Saturday, for a few miles they couldn’t describe their experience in plain words, but the connectedness the women felt to their ancestors and other family tribes was “powerful” and “surreal.”
They were not alone in spirit of the past or present.
Other paddlers came alongside the ladies in their Sturgeon Nose bark canoe “to feel it out” as they rode the Pend d’Oreille River. To give them comfort, they were told, “The canoe is there for them. Listen to it.”
“It was rocky at first, but we quickly got synchronized,” said Bear Don’t Walk. “It was an inspiration to be out (on the water) with others.”
“We did really good for being our first time,” Matt admitted. “There were so many groups (out on the river) guiding us with encouragement and positive words,” she said. The words were not in English but in the native tongue of Salish she said. “It was a close enough dialect that we understood what they were telling us,” said Matt. “It was lifting talking in our language.”
“Speaking in our language out on the water with one another was amazing,” said Bear Don’t Walk. “There were a ton of emotions. Thinking back to what it was like for Salish back then and doing this journey with other tribes.”
Two weeks prior to the “Remember the Water” canoe journey the first home built sturgeon nose canoe touched the waters of Flathead Lake. Several attendees who were part of the canoe’s construction took turns getting the feel of the home waters in the canoe. It was the first time a Bitterroot Salish built canoe journeyed on Flathead Lake in over 100 years.
“We had no experience with a canoe,” said Matt. “It took all our effort but we took a healthy risk.”
Willie Stevens, canoe advisor and song keeper said, the team - the two paddlers and he and canoe caretaker Frances Brown - got to the river two hours earlier to give the ladies a bit of practice.
Stevens said the recruitment to find a paddler team to join others on the upcoming sister tribes canoe journey began at Flathead Lake. Bear Don’t Walk and Matt stepped up and said they would and two other young men said so as well.
“We were asking for two strong young warriors to paddle,” said Stevens. To journey down the river takes strength and agility he said.
“Since we’d been working out we decided we could do it,” said Matt.
Stevens said he was happy to see the two young women show up and be the ones to take this significant historical journey for the Tribes. “Women are the backbone of societies and clans. They hold us together. Glad they led the way for us,” he said.
“It was pretty emotional. It was a great feeling and something you don’t get to see,” said Stevens.
Willie’s wife Patty, who was part of the canoe building team, also witnessed the journey. She said even though it was a small part in the annual canoe journey, “It was history for our people,” she said.
Bear Don’t Walk said feelings flooded her spirit as she watched the numerous dugout canoes surrounding her and Matt on the water. She described them as “strong and resilient.”
She then took notice on the shores near the powwow grounds where drumming and singing welcomed the canoes and paddlers home.
Tears flowed from both young ladies as they reached the shores where family and friends awaited with hearts filled with joy.
“This is a very significant event for the Upper Pend d’Oreille and Bitterroot Salish to get a canoe in the water. We want to make more for our young people to learn our ways that have been lost,” said Stevens.
Patty Porter was one of the paddlers who came to the Flathead Reservation in April 2018 with the Piengkham family from the Kalispel Tribe to reintroduce traditional canoe construction to the community. They transported their 31-feet dugout red cedar canoe for the team to make a blueprint from, and ride the waters of Flathead Lake. Porter said, “To see the Tribe getting the chance to heal the waters, lands and animals and to have the blessing of getting in touch with the ancestors and with themselves is an honor.” Porter said many prayers were answered because the cedar trees that turned into a blessing is very strong medicine.
“The young women are water warriors,” said Porter, 61, Skipper and Caretaker of the Snaputa Colville canoe. “It’s the start of the canoe calling for all to come join; young, old and middle age.”