Traditional canoe build gives PSU a special opportunity

The Native American Student and Community Center held an opening ceremony for the Outrigger Canoe Project on Sept. 24, which will take place for the duration of fall term. The project welcomes a traditional Marshall Island canoe builder, Tiem Clement, to Portland State to carve a canoe in the Oak Savanna.

The seaworthy 25- to 30-foot canoe will be hand-built from local sequoia logs, with sails hand-sewn from coconut fiber. Students, faculty and members of the community are invited to watch the process of creating a traditional canoe (for the first time in Oregon) by one of the last Marshallese master canoe-builders.

The opening ceremony featured traditional Marshallese dancing, handcrafts and food. The ceremony invited everyone to learn more about the Marshallese culture and people through a series of speakers and displays throughout the NASCC.

A workshop will be held Oct. 20, from 12 to 2 p.m., at the NASCC. There will be another opportunity to learn more about the culture on Nov. 18 from 12 to 2 p.m. The NASCC is hosting an intertribal canoe cultures presentation. Both events are free of charge and will serve Marshallese food.

Clement has all of fall quarter to complete the project; however, NASCC Program Coordinator Melissa Bennett believes it might be finished earlier.

“We are hoping it will be finished before Thanksgiving break,” Bennett said. “But he has all of fall term to finish it.”

Although the build site will be fenced in, there will be slits through the fence for viewers to see Clement work.

“The location of the site is in the heart of campus,” said Sarah Kenney, executive
administrative coordinator for planning and construction at PSU. “There is a lot of traffic that goes back and forth so a lot of people will get to see it.”

It took more than the NASCC to make this project happen. Kianna Angelo, executive director of Living Islands, a nonprofit group dedicated to the education and cultural understanding of the Marshallese people, came to Bennett and asked her if PSU would be interested in a project like this. Such a special opportunity could not be turned away.

Angelo found Clement through an interesting coincidence. She was adopted as a young child and recently started to trace her origins back to the islands. When she wanted to start this project, she found Clement, who now lives in Washington. Though she didn’t know it at the time, they were both born on the same Marshall Island.

Clement is one of three master canoe-builders left in the world.

“I think they were originally looking for someone to come over [from the Marshall Islands] and then they found this guy,” said Neil Berl, president of the board for Living Islands. “And he is the king of them all, he’s the man.”

Although Living Islands and PSU’s NASCC are the main founders of the Outrigger Canoe Project, many other clubs and organizations are also involved.

“It’s become this collaboration between the Native Center [NASCC], Living Islands, the Student Sustainability Center, Student Activities and Leadership Program and Pacific Islander Club,” Bennett said. “Lots of people on campus are involved, it is really fun.”

Living Islands and the NASCC are focused on getting as many students involved as possible. The purpose of building the canoe in a public space is to create community awareness about the Marshall Islands, its culture and its people. Students can even help with the build by contacting Living Islands via their website.

“The outrigger canoe that we will build over the coming weeks is much more than just a boat,” Angelo said. “It represents a culture that is in danger of extinction and a people who are struggling to survive in our modern role.”

Erick Pedro, Clement’s nephew, explained how some of the Marshallese culture has already faded with modern adjustments. For example, traditionally on the Marshall Islands, building a canoe would involve a much more spiritual process. A chief would have to ask a master builder to carve a canoe, and there would be a formal ceremony of cutting down the trees and gathering materials.

“You can still feel the spiritual connection with doing something that you know your ancestors did,” Pedro said. “But the formal things you had to go through, that doesn’t happen anymore. So, building a canoe here, this is what we are doing to commemorate it. But traditionally, you can’t just go and build a canoe.”

Although traditional ways may have been altered over the years to fit modern life, members at PSU are happy that the result means they get to be a part of an exclusive build.

“It’s pretty exciting that it gets to start here at PSU,” Bennett said. “We are really lucky.”

PSU President Wim Wiewel is also grateful that the university was asked to participate in such an extraordinary event.

“I just love the creativity of doing something like this,” Wiewel said. “And bringing not just part of a culture for an evening or day, but to have something as a real project, that produces something and that will give many people an opportunity to be exposed and to learn and to find out more about a part of the world that many of us only know a tiny little bit about.”

For more on this story go to “Outrigger Canoe Project introduces students to Marshallese culture.”