A group in a canoe.Students in Desiree Hellegers’s Native American Literature course spent two class sessions in a 15-person, 36-foot tribal canoe on the Columbia River. Chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation Tony Johnson led the canoe portion of the class, themed “Mni Wiconi, Water is Life.”

They began with instructions in the Cathlapotle Plankhouse near Ridgefield, Wash., followed by canoeing and hearing stories from Johnson. The building is a full-scale Chinookan plankhouse built by volunteers based on findings from the archaeological village site of Cathlapotle.

While they paddled, Johnson talked about parallel impacts of the fur trade and dams on the Chinook and other Columbia River tribal nations. They also got a close-up introduction to the Columbia River ecosystems, and related cultural traditions and oral narratives of the Chinook and other Columbia River tribes. The purpose was to provide some understanding of the annual Pacific Northwest canoe journeys in the cultural revitalization work among the Chinook and other lower Columbia River tribal nations.

The class also featured the novel “Solar Storms” by Linda Hogan. The story is set in the boundary waters between Minnesota and Ontario, and focuses on the impact of the fur trade and massive hydropower projects, and the healing power of an all-woman canoe journey. Speakers from the Nez Perce and Cowlitz Indian tribes were also scheduled to visit the class.

Hellegers, a WSU associate professor of English, received a 2019 fellowship endowed by Lewis E. and Stella G. Buchanan, which provided seed money for the course. She developed the course in consultation with Lakota/Cheyenne activist/researcher Roben White, who is a member of WSU Vancouver’s Native American Community Advisory Board.

Full photo gallery available here.

From WSU Vancouver Northwest Crimson and Gray magazine