Central Whidbey's Chief Snakelum’s canoe due a major historical makeover

Rick Castellano, executive director of the Island County Historical Society, examines the nose of Chief Snakelum’s canoe. It was removed by canoe restoration expert Steve Brown to make the 27-foot craft easier to move.  - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Rick Castellano, executive director of the Island County Historical Society, examines the nose of Chief Snakelum’s canoe. It was removed by canoe restoration expert Steve Brown to make the 27-foot craft easier to move.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

With a heave-ho from a team of volunteers, a historic canoe that once belonged to the renowned Chief Snakelum of Central Whidbey went in for an overhaul this week.

Estimated to be at least 160 years old and built of a single piece of Red Cedar, the 27-foot canoe was transported to the Reuble Barn on Fort Casey Road Monday where it will spend the next several months undergoing restoration.

While it is one of many that have for years sat on display in front of the museum, Snakelum’s canoe is particularly special. Not only did it ply the waters of Penn Cove at the time when white settlers were staking their first land claims in Coupeville, but few canoes of that age and style are still in existence.

“It’s a very rare and important cultural artifact,” said Rick Castellano, executive director of the Island County Historical Society and the museum in Coupeville. “It’s one of the few remaining.”

Believed to have been acquired by Snakelum in the early 1850s, it was passed down to his oldest son, the equally famous Charlie Snakelum, who died in 1934. The canoe was displayed at the Block House Inn, which is now the museum grounds, before it eventually came into the historical society’s possession.

Over the years, time, weather, and souvenir seekers have taken a toll on the ancient canoe and it was high time for a restoration project, Castellano said. But getting it out of the canoe shed was easier said than done.

Enlisting the help of the Coupeville Lions Club and the members of the Coupeville Arts and Crafts Festival Association, the effort to free the canoe from its rack spanned several hours. It was eventually loaded into Dale Sherman’s waiting squash truck and transported to the Reuble Barn.

The canoe is now in the hands of Sequim resident Steve Brown. Lacking tribal ancestry, Brown said he is just “an average white guy.” However, he is widely regarded as an expert in Native American canoe restoration.

Over the past 40 years, Brown has restored several that are now in museums around the state. In addition, he’s carved 13 others, most of which are now under the ownership of Western Washington tribes.

According to Brown, Snakelum’s canoe is not representative of those built by Salish or Puget Sound peoples. Rather, it’s a rough water craft constructed in a style common among coastal tribes, such as the Makahs or Quileutes, he said.

Although no one can be certain, it’s entirely possible that Snakelum got his canoe through trade, Brown said. Whatever the case, it was likely used for everything from fishing to just getting around.

Canoes were one of the most common forms of transportation of the day, he said.

“It was the automobile of Native peoples,” Brown said.

Like all dugouts, it was built from a single tree by one or two people working with hand tools, such as adzes. In this case, Snakelum’s canoe came from a red cedar tree that Brown estimates was between 600 and 800 years old.

Its construction was likely a very spiritual process. Native Americans don’t consider canoes inanimate objects but believe they have a spirit of their own.

“It’s not a boat,” Castellano said. “It’s a canoe, a living thing.”

Brown equated the building process to an extended form of prayer and its restoration will be performed with the same respect, he said.

Most of the work will involve repairing cracks and holes in the hull and replacing the missing sections of gunnel with new pieces of cedar using wooden pins and adhesives. He estimated the entire process will take several months.

According to Castellano, the project is expected to cost about $10,000. The historical society has received grants from the Swinomish Tribal Community, the Arts and Crafts Festival Association and has gotten contributions from private donors but additional financial support is always welcome, he said.

To donate, call the museum at 678-3310.

Without such help, projects like this would be difficult if not impossible to fund and treasures like Snakelum’s canoe would not be around for future generations to enjoy, he said.


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