Lichen and Mosses

Foraging Nehalem Valley

PHOTO: Mt. Hood, Oregon

Kil’iii is one of the West Coast’s ‘300 or so’ primitivists. His name – Kil’iii, was a name given to him later in life.

"I am Northern Chinese and Nanai. My grandmother was Nanai, who are indigenous to the Amur river bordering northern China and Siberia, and are related to the Ainu of Japan. The film Dersu Usula by Akira Kurosawa is a film about a man who was Ulchi, very very closely related to the Nanai. Sometimes I am pretty sure that I do what I do because my ancestry is speaking through my blood. I hunt salmon the same way my grandmother's people did, and I'm sure it's no coincidence!"

He has gathered a collection of people on a rocky beach of the Portland section of the Willamette River. It is his birthday, and so he has gathered his friends together to help him christen his new boat. He is building a Greenland Baidarka out of driftwood he found on the Oregon coast. Today, his friends are helping him sew the skin. “Land Walrus,” he says, explaining the skin he is using to cover the driftwood shell.

Land Walrus means cow.

Meeting Kil’iii is important; you could almost say that there are very few people in Oregon who have the experience he does; the array of Pacific Northwest Indian skills. In our first meeting, I admit to him that I need to tap him for his experience. I was surprised by his excitement for my project, and his instant willingness to help.

He is sort of at the center of a group of people with incredibly varied interests and skills; all of which center around the loose ideas of native skills in progressive community. Some of his friends here are part of a group called ‘Trackers Northwest’ –which advocates and teaches hunting and foraging within the city limits of urban environments.

One young man here has started a program to teach Portland’s homeless how to build and operate their own propane stove; to allow them more independence. Others are amateur ethnobotanists, and one man is part of a group that wants to reintroduce the California condor to Oregon.

In an email, I ask Kil’iii about the boat. He says, “The kayak was a huge community effort and to me the boat represents that human community coming together and also a connection to our ancestors and coming children. Ahnkuttie Alta Alki was started from driftwood collected on the bay at Nehalem. Brian Schulz of Cape Falcon Kayak and I spent four days in the salt marsh at the spit and collected driftwood, scraps, and built the frame there.”

I tell him that I have been reading about the history of the Indian migrations to North America; ultimately, about the mystery of how the Americas, and particular Oregon, were populated. I ask him if the type of boat he is building here might be similar to the boats that may have been used in the migrations to the Americas.

He says,

“Now, the boat as compared to the Pacific Northwest boats…There were no skin boats in the coastal regions here. Moose-hide boats were common farther inland in Idaho and Montana, but they were open canoes, and not kayaks certainly. Kayaks were made with a very specific set of needs-- to catch seals and deal with a very dangerous open ocean in the North. Down here, we had huge red cedar trees and dugout canoes were the common occurrence. Although exceptionally heavy, the beautiful Northwest coast dugouts were much better for fighting, being impenetrable to arrows, which was constant. The Northwest coast dugout canoes were also quite seaworthy.

Now 12,000 years ago is a different story. Although kayaks were paddled by the Aleut during the sea otter trade, being enslaved by Russian Fur traders and made to hunt out all the sea otters down the pacific coast in only a few years, kayaks were not used down here. Kayaks are also only historically dated back about 4,000 years.

12,000 years ago, I'm not certain what craft were used down here. It is quite likely dugout canoes were used, but the technology of the period was much less sophisticated. I speculate that common watercraft would have been stitched plank canoes and simple dugouts used to ferry people on rivers and bays, and not as much the open ocean.

There has been much talk of skin umiaks crossing the Bering strait. Umiaks were the precursors to skin kayaks, and were canoe shaped, and carried up to 120 people per journey. They are very, very seaworthy, and have been known to cross regions of up to 150 miles in a single journey, and the Bering Strait is considerably less distant.”

I show Kil’iii’s Trackers Northwest friends my mushrooms. “No, no, that is definitely not a chanterelle,” one says, looking at it carefully. “It’s the ridges, they are uniform.” I show him the white mushroom. “Not a white chanterelle, I’m pretty sure,” he says. And the gray mushroom? “Not familiar with this one. Wouldn’t eat it.”