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Santa Rosa canoe project symbolizes 'cultural revitalization' for Native Americans

  • Jesse Drescher, left, and Rodney Aguilar work to build a canoe from the Tongva tribe in Santa Rosa, California on Sunday, July 21, 2013. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

More than just a canoe has been under construction in the front yard of a home on Corby Avenue.

The band of amateur boat builders who've been creating the rare replica a Native American vessel are also rebuilding a sense of community shattered by history.

"This is a symbol of our cultural revitalization," said L. Frank Manriquez, an artist and member of the tiny Tongva tribe, whose homeland is in present day Los Angeles.

Tongva Tribe Canoe Project

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Manriquez, 61, is the architect of an effort to construct an 18-foot sewn plank canoe and paddle it down the coast of Washington State as part of a gathering of Native American peoples next week at the Quinault Indian Nation.

Building the craft is something she's had in the back of her mind since 1989, when she was part of a similar project by Tongva tribe's neighbors to the north, the Chumash.

Sewn plank canoes were common in Polynesian culture but rare in North America, built only by the Tongva and Chumash. Since large trees suitable for boat-building were hard to come by in their coastal areas, the tribes sewed together smaller pieces of wood, usually driftwood from redwood trees, sealing the seams with pitch tar abundant in the area, explained Jesse Drescher, a Tongva member and student in Olympia, Wash.

He's one of several people helping on the project who are descended from far-flung tribes, including Pomo and Wappo from California, Navajo from the Southwest, Tlingit from the Pacific Northwest and Choctaw from Oklahoma.

Drescher has been reconnecting with his tribal roots of late, including learning from Manriquez, a tribal scholar and expert in native language preservation, how to speak the largely extinct Tongva tongue.

His right arm above the elbow bears a new tattoo in a red diamond pattern as a testament to his deepening tribal identity. The building of the canoe, or ti'aat, is an extension of that effort to help native peoples reconnect with their tribal traditions.

"People don't know how to be a community anymore," Manriquez said.


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