Emmett Oliver by Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen
For at least 8,000 years before Euro-Americans arrived, there flourished on the western shores of the North American continent a people and a culture highlighted by the omnipresent dugout canoe. They hunted the sea, the woods were full of game and berries, and the air with fowl. Food was easy to find. They created masks and totems and made their houses and canoes from the wood; they shared an essential friend in the cedar tree.
They made clothes and blankets from its thick brown pelt. They created masks and totems and made their houses and canoes from the wood. They built strong seaworthy racing canoes to engage in annual competitions between the villages.
All the young strong men helped paddle the large canoes, and one of the best and strongest was Emmett Oliver, a young Quinalt Indian from the Western coast of Washington state.
By 1985 dugout canoes were almost a lost art in the Pacific Northwest, found mostly in museums. Some had not carved a canoe for over 50 years, and some tribes had never done so.
Emmett Oliver, then the Superintendent of Indian Education for the State of Washingon, remembering the unifying effect the canoe races had had in the early years, decided to return the event, giving particular pride back to the various tribes. Each group would of course be responsible not only for carving their canoe, but for obtaining permits, raising money, and cutting their own trees. Carving workshops were formed and finally, framed by the rising skyline of the city of Seattle, 18 canoes were ready to paddle across the Puget Sound. With Emmett aboard a Coast Guard command vessel, and with 5,000 people ready to greet them, Paddle to Seattle was accomplished on July 21, 1989. The paddlers performed as though they had manned those canoes lifelong. Their shoulders bore the traditions of 8 millenia.
This year Emmett’s son, Marvin Oliver, well known artist and professor of Art at the University of Washington, has designed a North Coast painting on the sides of the Oliver Family canoe, and Emmett’s daughter Marylin Bard, along with 2 granddaughters, will be included in the crew. The race has grown exponentially year by year, with 89 canoes taking part in 2011.
This year in July, when the first of 100 canoes are spotted, and with sunlight reflecting off the waters of Puget Sound, a very old man in his 100th year will be on the shore, waiting for the first canoe to beach. The strong muscles of his youth have long been absent, his eyesight may be weak, but his heart is strong, and in his memory he feels the pull of the water, the sunlight on his back, and the thrill of the race as each paddler chants and shouts out his encouragement to his companions. The pride in his family is strong, knowing that this race is part of the legacy he has left for his family and for his people.