Ronan high-schoolers learn to carve Kootenai canoes, paddles

2012-04-23T22:30:00Z 2012-04-24T21:06:08Z Ronan high-schoolers learn to carve Kootenai canoes, paddlesBy VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian
April 23, 2012 10:30 pm  • 

RONAN – If you think of high school shop class as a place to build a bookshelf, think again.

At Ronan High School, students these days are producing items Kootenai Indians made centuries ago for survival: a bow, snowshoes, a special oar and, eventually, the sturgeon-nosed canoe that was unique to the Kootenai people.

It’s all part of a project funded with a $7,900 grant from the Plum Creek Foundation, and what grant writer Leslie Caye likes is that it takes the students far beyond woodworking without taking them from it.

“There were no roads back then, so rivers and streams were their highways,” says Caye, Ronan’s Indian education coordinator.

“This was their automobile,” he says, indicating a canoe, “and these were their tires,” holding up one of the unusually shaped paddles.

“We live in the Wal-Mart age,” Caye goes on. “You want bread, you go down one aisle of a store. You want meat, you go down another. We don’t think about where things come from. We take things for granted. You want tires, you run over to Les Schwab and buy them. But if they had a paddle break back then … ”

Well, Indians had to gather the proper materials just to build the tools that allowed them to gather the necessary wood to replace the paddle.

And, they had to be in the right place at the right time to do it.

“They had to plan their life so they were at the place they needed to be to get the material when it was ready,” Caye says.

Wood for bows and arrow shafts? Winter, when the sap was low.

Bark for the canoes? Summer, when sap was high and the wood was supple.


“I think that was the biggest surprise for me,” says Ronan shop teacher Dave Edington, who teamed with Caye on the project. “My gosh, the journeys they had to take to get this stuff.”

In the Yaak for one kind of wood, north of present-day Condon for another.

“It allows us to reintroduce the scope of the traditional living pattern tribal people had,” Caye says. “It dictated where they lived, and when they lived there.”

As they learn such things from Caye, students such as seniors Wade Burland and Dominique Garcia are using modern-day hand tools to build the items, something their teachers say gives them a feel for the wood that power tools would not.

“No sanders, nothing electric,” Burland says.

Just rasps, files, draw knives – tools purchased with some of the grant money Caye says will allow the project to continue into future years.

“We won’t be able to afford the materials for all four items after this year,” he explains, “but we will have all the tools, and be able to budget enough to do oars one year, snowshoes the next, and so on.”

“Relating to different cultures can be difficult,” Edington says. “I knew this would be big with tribal families, but I wondered how non-tribal students would react. Sometimes we like to use the biggest, fastest tools, but I’ll tell you, they’ve been thrilled to be able to participate.”

They’re in the class, after all, because they like working with wood.


They’ll build five Kootenai canoes, three of them 5-footers and two of them 13 feet long.

All will be shorter than the 18-foot, three-person canoes used by the Kootenai people, but all will mimic the unique Kootenai design.

“David Thompson was the first to write about the sturgeon-nosed canoe,” Caye says. “He said he was seeing something he’d never seen before. This was unique because of the flat-beaked nose that let them knife through bulrush (cattails) and reeds without killing the ecosystem. They wanted to get into where fish were living without disturbing where they were living.”

The paddles are shaped like a beaver, or otter, tail, with a tapered point that helped them guide off of rocks and maneuver in small rivers and streams.

Handles also had a pointed end that could be jabbed into the ground on shore, and canoes could be rested on the oars.

The pointed ends, Garcia notes, made them weapons as well as paddles.

With the scraps left over after the oars are cut from cedar blanks, Caye and Edington have let middle-school shop students make miniature versions of the oars “so they understand what we’re talking about, and can learn the history too,” Caye says.

The Indian education coordinator turned to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Kootenai Culture Committee, and Kootenai elders, to gather historical information presented in the woodworking class. The canoe design comes from the Smithsonian. Primitive survivalist Bill McConnell of the PAST Skills Wilderness School in Bozeman counseled Caye on the bow design.

They’re finishing up the paddles now, and hope to have the first canoe built in time for the Standing Arrow Pow Wow in Elmo this summer.

“There was no such thing as a C-plus paddle for Native Americans,” Caye says. “They had to have an A every time. It was a matter of survival.”

The projects are a good example of how tribal history and culture can be introduced into classrooms other than social studies, Caye says.

“And it’s living knowledge,” he adds. “Not something that’s book-taught.”

Reporter Vince Devlin covers the Flathead Reservation and Lake and Sanders counties for the Missoulian. He can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at

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