A community’s blessing: Canoe sanctified by tribe, priest

PORT TOWNSEND– Cedar bough and sage, eagle feather and drum, salt water and fresh.

Six elements from nature came together Sunday to purify and bless the cedar-frame canoe built by Jared Fennell and his family when they launched it at Point Hudson.

Jared, a student from Gig Harbor, built the canoe in the tradition of his great-great-grandfather with the help of Mitch Poling, a Port Townsend resident who revived the tradition of canoe and baidarka building of Fennell’s ancestors.

The canoe, part of Jared’s senior project at school, was built in Poling’s garage this winter.

Completing it two weeks ago, Jared’s family invited the McQuillens, members of the Makah tribe who live in the Port Townsend area, to be part of the native ceremony of blessing Sunday morning.

In the afternoon, Father Nicholas Kime of St. Herman’s Orthodox Church, assisted by acolyte Judah Breitbach of Sequim, gave a blessing and sprinkled holy water in the tradition of Jared’s great-great-grandfather, Steve Vlasoff, who was an Orthodox priest on the southeast Alaskan island of Chenega.

Afterward, community members were invited to add their positive vibes.

“We ask you to place your hands on the canoe and give her your blessing,” said Jared’s aunt, Darcie Pacholl.

The native blessing

At the native ceremony, Walter McQuillen and nephew Chris Rendeau drummed while Jared and his family carried the canoe down to the launch and placed it in the water.

Then Pacholl, walking around the canoe with a shell of burning sage, used an eagle fever to waft smoke into the nylon “skin” of the cedar-frame boat.

Jared’s canoe family SEmD which includes Poling, spouse Sandra Smith-Poling and Joe Casto, who is Quileute and Makah SEmD took cedar boughs and dipped them in salt water, then fresh water, and shook them on the canoe.

The ceremony is a way of asking that the canoe not harm the waters it travels, or the waters harm the craft, Pacholl said.

The McQuillen family sang and drummed, adding their blessing to the craft.

“We travel these waters,” Walter McQuillen said. “It is an honor to know that Port Townsend is still a welcoming community for the tribes traveling here.”

Sarah McQuillen, Walter’s spouse, presented each person involved in the canoe project with a silver dollar mounted in copper on a cord.

They included Sofia Christine Prins, a local artist who contributed an icon of the Madonna and child in copper that was put in the bow of the canoe, and Kees Prins, boat shop educator at the Northwest Maritime Center, which donated space for the final stages of the canoe’s construction.

Orthodox ceremony

The McQuillen family also attended the afternoon blessing, drumming as the canoe came out of Point Hudson marina and around to the beach next to the Northwest Maritime Center.

There, Father Nicholas talked with Maggie Fennell, who was baptized in the Orthodox church on Chenega when she was young.

Then Father Nicholas recited the prayers and blessed the canoe, sprinkling it and the canoe family with holy water.

“This is a traditional blessing that has been used for seagoing vessels for a long time,” Father Nicholas said.

Father Nicholas also presented Pacholl with an icon of St. Nicholas, the protector of all who travel by sea, to put in the stern.

Built with contemporary materials in the traditional manner, the canoe, or angyak, will be pulled by the family from Port Townsend to Neah Bay in the 2010 Paddle Journey.

Children are witnesses

Pacholl, who started an organization called BRIDGE to bring generations of native people together and pass down traditions, said she was glad to see so many children present at the blessings.

BRIDGE comes from the letters of several main words in its official name, Building Respectful Interactions to Develop Goals for American Indian Elders and youth.

Chris Rondeau and spouse, Sereta Rondeau, brought sons David, 2, and Jaxon, 3 months, while Chris’ sister, Sabrina McQuillen, brought her son, Scott, also 3 months.

“We are learning together,” Pacholl said. “We are proud native people and we are here.

“Thank you for making this a beautiful, spiritual day for our family.”

Watching the native ceremony were Walter’s cousin, Everett McQuillen, and his spouse, Brenda McQuillen, from Ridgefield, who were in town visiting family, and Leif Knutsen, a local boat builder and consultant for Paddle Journey canoe construction.

For more information about the Aleut canoe, go to nativebridge.org.


Port Townsend/Jefferson County reporter-columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at jjackson@olypen.com.

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