American Indian Studies class unearths the UW’s relation to native lands, history

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Montlake Cut is located just south of UW and is a manmade connection between Lake Washington and Lake Union.

In the summer of 1989, the first Coast Salish canoes in decades slipped through the Montlake Cut in what became known as the Paddle to Seattle. Quinault native and UW educator Emmett Oliver planted the seed for a native cultural resurgence far greater than he could imagine. Almost 30 years later, the UW is preparing to mark his legacy with the arrival of the Willapa Spirit Honor Canoe to the ASUW Shell House.

Taught by lecturer Cynthia Updegrave, the American Indian Studies class, “Engaging with the Waterways: Welcoming the Willapa Spirit Canoe to Campus,” examines the history of destruction and healing between the UW and the lands it occupies.  

Updegrave described her class’ mission as “engaging with the waterways to better understand how they’ve changed.” For example, she explained how “the Montlake Cut was dynamited open. And there were villages near here, and this is a sacred site.”

Updegrave bases her class on the idea that “landscape is memory,” unearthing the legacy of colonization in the twists and turns of Washington’s rivers. Notably, Updegrave described how “there’s almost zero reproduction of native salmon in the [Duwamish] river — now it’s so toxic. If you would have been here 100 years ago, it’s the largest salt marsh in King County.”  

This is where the Willapa Spirit Honor Canoe enters the picture. Marilyn Bard, daughter of Oliver and colleague of Updegrave, sees the canoe as a chance to change the narrative. In 2009, she commissioned the Willapa Spirit in honor of her father’s work recruiting native students to higher education and recovering the lost art of canoe building.  

“The name comes from the waterways of Willapa Bay, where my father grew up,” Bard recounted. “And the Willapa Spirit is the spirit of my father, the love of the water.”

Oliver’s work with the UW stretched back to 1970 when he headed the Indian Student Division to recruit native students. The following year, he broadened his outreach by working for the state of Washington as director of Indian Education. Despite leaving campus, he maintained strong Husky ties and bought season football tickets for years. “He did have the love of his Huskies,” Bard said.

In 1987, with Seattle organizers readying for a celebration of Washington state’s upcoming centennial in 1989, Oliver sought to include canoes in the festivities. He traveled to the Coast Salish tribes to take stock of the canoes and gather participants. Although Bard noted how “there were carvers who hadn’t carved a canoe in 50 to 80 years,” Oliver was able to coordinate what became the first of many canoe journeys: the Paddle to Seattle. These annual, intertribal celebrations brought back the story of the waterways to a time when canoes were almost a fact of the landscape.

Oliver died in 2016 at the age of 102, but not before witnessing 103 canoes land on the beach at the Squaxin Island Tribe in 2012. “And that was his dream,” Bard said. “To see 100 canoes land on a beach.”

Today, the Willapa Spirit rests at ASUW Shell House, the site of an ambitious $10 million renovation effort. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Paddle to Seattle this summer, the canoe will likely take part in a canoe journey through the Montlake Cut.

Oliver’s grandson and UW sophomore, Owen Oliver, shared his perspective on the significance of this canoe.

“The Willapa Spirit brings everything that my grandfather worked for, but also connecting to all these indigenous people in need,” he said. He emphasized how the “canoe journey marks a place where natives and non-natives can come together and experience these traditions.”

When asked what message he has for all UW students, Oliver urged the community “to ask more questions” to native students and “experience native culture from its heart.”

“There’s been so much destruction in the past, but that’s been because people have been suppressing our voice and not coming to us,” he said.

By “not being afraid to learn about” native culture, the UW can remember its history now hidden in the waterways.  

Reach contributing writer Sam Colgan at Twitter: @SamColgan3

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