WASHINGTON, D.C. - After decades of trying, the Chinook Indian Nation is still yet to be recognized by the federal government.
But thanks to the talents of Chinook Chairman Ray Gardner, the tribe will soon be represented in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's American Indian Museum (AIM).
Gardner, who serves on the board of American Rivers, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the nation's rivers, visits Washington, D.C., regularly for meetings and is a regular visitor to the AIM.
"They rotate the exhibits a lot," he said, "and the last time I was there I talked to staff members and told them I thought it would be a good idea to have a traditional Chinook river paddle in the collection."
Gardner hand carves the traditional paddles himself.
After he returned from his trip, Gardner said a Smithsonian staff member called and asked if he would donate a paddle and asked for a personal biography and photo. The staff member wasn't exactly encouraging about the paddle being on exhibit right away.
"They said they get about 150,000 offers of donations every year," he said, "and the process can take three to five years. But they said not to get discouraged."
So, Gardner sent off a bio and, "less than a month later they contacted me saying they want a paddle. I got to the head of the line. They went through the process quickly. I'm very proud of that."
Back home at his work bench Gardner is still working on the finishing touches of the paddle that will be given to the AIM. Made from Oregon Ash, the hardwood traditionally used for making the tribal paddles, Gardner said he still has a little ways to go before the paddle is complete.
"I've got probably about 13 hours into this one right now and I'll probably have about four more hours to finish - just depending on how my schedule goes and how I can fit it in."
Despite some second thoughts, Gardner decided it was also a good idea to take the paddle with him to the tribe's annual winter gathering, which took place last weekend at the Chinook longhouse in Ridgefield. He said other tribe members agreed that it was right to have it in the building during the ceremonies.
Accoridng tot Gardner, the unique shape of the paddle is significant, as it was used for more than just rowing on the river.
"The cutout of coming up to the two tips was significant because when you're in the river and come into the shallow water you can hook over rocks or roots and pull yourself over," he said. "And the women actually used them to harvest wapato roots - so it actually was a paddle and a tool."
And while having something he made himself in the AIM is a great honor for Gardner, he said it really means more to the tribe.
"It is something I'm very happy with, and it is an honor. But really the best honor is the tribute to our people," he said. "Something that signifies the lower Columbia River and Willapa people is great to know that it'll be there for other people to see."
Next week Gardner will be heading once again to the nation's capital for an American Rivers board meeting and will be bringing along his hand-made paddle, which will be officially donated to the museum in a ceremony on Jan. 31. U.S. Rep. Brian Baird or his staff members are expected to attend the ceremony.
It's also possible that a Chinook canoe could be accepted for exhibit at the museum in the future.
"There are many canoes from all over the world on display," Gardner said. "It would be nice to have a Chinook canoe included."
Observer photojournalist Damian ?Mulinix
contributed to this report
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