When a Canoe Is More Than a Canoe

A new film documents Nimiipuu people building their first canoe in 100 years. The Tribe's health is linked to the fate of Snake River salmon.


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Chanting rang out across the Snake River as a Nimiipuu canoe slipped into the water for the first time in a century.

For thousands of years, the Nimiipuu people, also known as the Nez Perce Tribe, piloted their canoes up and down the tumbling waters of this river through Washington and Idaho. The Snake’s abundant salmon nourished the tribe physically, culturally, and spiritually.

Then, in the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. government began an era of major dam building throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Columbia River basin became one of the most dammed river systems in the world—and the millions of salmon and steelhead that once journeyed along the lower Snake on their way to the Pacific Ocean began to perish.

As the wild fish suffered, so did the tribe. The last and among the most controversial of the major dams installed were Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Lower Granite built downstream from the current Nez Perce reservation on the lower Snake River in the late 1960s and 1970s. When the final dam was completed, people watched in horror and despair as the water rose, displacing native families and flooding Nimíipuu villages, settlements, fishing spots, cemeteries, and sacred grounds.

Today, many runs of salmon and steelhead that return to the Snake River have gone extinct. The remaining runs are all listed on the federal Endangered Species list. And until recently, the Nimiipuu’s ancient craft of canoe building also appeared lost.

That all changed when in 2017, a group of enrolled Nez Perce Tribe members decided to revive the tradition on their reservation in Lapwai, Idaho.

Julian Matthews, treasurer of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, a native non-profit organization, spearheaded the project. He and other volunteers began by turning an abandoned lot behind the Nez Perce reservation’s health clinic into a gathering place. There people from the area not only came together to build a canoe, but they got together to revive tradition, share stories, and strengthen their community.

“We’re doing something that hasn’t been done in a hundred years,” Matthews said. “We’re bringing back this tradition and we’re starting this movement.”

The canoe crafting was not just about building a canoe. Matthews said the idea was tied to the movement to restore a free-flowing lower Snake River.

For over 20 years, Earthjustice has worked in coordination with the Nez Perce Tribe representing a coalition of environmental and fishing groups in a drawn-out fight to restore and revitalize this critical fish corridor bottlenecked by the four lower Snake River dams.

The discourse and debate over the issue in favor of dam removal has often focused on the importance of salmon and the orcas they feed, which are now starving to death. But a perspective that has often been overlooked is that of the people who’ve lived on these lands the longest and were the most directly and negatively impacted by the building of the dams.

Earthjustice partnered with Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment to document the process of building the canoe in the newly released film “A Healing Journey.”

Lucii Simpson, a tribal elder who made the commitment to come every week and bring food for the children working on the canoe, said that seeing this project through to the end was an important lesson to teach the children and could inspire the next generation to push for even greater change.

“It’s going to have to take the removal of those dams to get back to where we need to be,” Simpson said. “I think some of the traditional sites… would return and probably be more powerful. Other things can be gotten back that were buried for so many years, and the canoe is just one hope and dream that we had. It can lead to many others in the future.”

We hope you enjoy this film and spread the message and stand with the Nimiipuu to remove the four lower Snake River dams. Sign up here to receive updates and learn how you can take action in the coming year.

Maggie worked at Earthjustice from 2014–2021.

Established in 1987, Earthjustice's Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways.