The canoe is brought in for the ceremony. (Michael McNerney)

‘Viola’ canoe returned with ceremony to its homeland on West End

The Viola canoe has been returned to its homeland after 50 years. 

In the culture of the Hoh, Quileute and other Northwest Tribes the significance of the cedar canoe is immeasurable.

Since long before the first European explorers sailed near the shores of the Olympic Peninsula, native canoes navigated the ocean and local waterways as transportation and were used in warfare as well as providing for the native peoples’ very existence through fishing, sealing and whaling.

The canoe named Viola was finally returned to the region in which it was carved during a welcoming ceremony at the Olympic Natural Resources Center in Forks on July 8.

The journey had taken a half-century.

The canoe was carved in the early 1960s by Viola Penn Riebe’s uncle, William E. Penn, and given the name Viola.

Then life happened. Riebe — who is now a cultural resources specialist and elder with the Hoh Tribe — raised a family and at some point, the canoe left the family’s possession.

It was eventually purchased by a Sequim resident who knew nothing of its history when donating it in 1967 to the Sequim Pioneer Memorial Park in Sequim, a park maintained by the Sequim Prairie Garden Club.

There it sat on display until garden club member Priscilla Hudson took on the research into the intriguing canoe’s ownership.

Hudson moved to Sequim about 10 years ago. She volunteered with several organizations, including the Sequim Museum & Arts, where she and others thrived on putting together historical displays, presentations and city tours. Because Pioneer Memorial Park was the site of the first cemetery, it was included in the tours.

That’s when the canoe caught Hudson’s attention.

“None of us could find information on the canoe,” she said. “The scrapbooks of the Sequim Prairie Garden Club (started in 1948) did have the letter about the donation. But there was no history of the background of the canoe. So I just continued on with documenting the legacy.

“Perhaps because I had been married to a Native Alaskan and lived on the Reserve I became immersed in Native American culture,” she added.

Hudson said that maybe it was her love of history that kept her searching for information on the canoe.

“My biggest reason for not giving up on the search though is wanting the community and those who come after me to know the history in this community. Why have an artifact on display if you don’t know the importance?” Hudson said.

Riebe had found the canoe about 15 years ago but felt that since it was in a Sequim city park nothing could be done to get it back.

She left the future of the canoe to prayer.

Those prayers were answered when in October 2016 Hudson discovered a story about a family seeking to borrow the canoe for a family reunion.

That story led her to Dixie Laudner, a payroll administrator for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe — and Riebe’s daughter.

“When we found that the displayed canoe didn’t really belong to our town, the garden club board enthusiastically guaranteed it go back to the real owner,” Hudson said.

Hudson said that she always took photos of the canoe with the design as the hallmark.

“That’s why no tribal person or historical entity could identify it,” Hudson said. “I wanted to apply for a grant to restore it but was afraid to cover the design.”

Being a lover of history Hudson added, “I’m still working on the part of who painted the figures on the canoe as it was in an old scrapbook photo as plain.”

At the canoe gifting ceremony in Forks, the restored Viola was welcomed with prayer, food, song, speeches, and thanks.

The ceremony was opened with a prayer by Bill Laubner. Vince Penn, Riebe’s nephew, served as master of ceremonies.

ONRC director Bernard Bormann welcomed the gift of the canoe.

“We are so honored to look after it from this point forward, and to harness its power for learning and to symbolize the core mission of ONRC — strengthening connections between people and place, and helping people work together,” Bormann said.

“This canoe has inspired us to seek more tribal participation in our efforts,” he added.

Dean Lisa Graumlich of the University of Washington College of the Environment also accepted the canoe. She talked about the historical significance and the need to strengthen relationships with Peninsula tribes.

She said that the canoe represents a long-standing focus on environmental protection and education, especially to continued improvements of stream, river and ocean habitats.

“With this gift from Viola Riebe, to the ONRC and the U of W we are reminded of our mission to continue in our discovery of the rapidly changing interaction between the earth’s environment and human activities that drive the research and teaching of the larger institution,” Graumlich said.

Since the arrival of the canoe at the ONRC in April, it has had some restoration and is now ready for the public to enjoy.

Restoration was done by Quileute Tribal members Tom Jackson and Chris Morganroth and three veterans from Sarge’s place — Gary Jones, Robert Ball, and Jay Baker.

ONRC staff Deric Kettel and Frank Hanson also participated. Painting was done by Cydney Craig-Hanson.

Scott Macklin of the University of Washington communications department is making a documentary about the canoe.

Riebe’s daughter, Marie Reibe, is spearheading an effort to see the story made into a children’s book.

For the native people of the Northwest Coast, the canoe was more than just a utilitarian object. It was — and still is — a spiritual vessel that is an object of great respect.

Christi Baron is the editor of the Forks Forum, which is part of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach her at cbaron@forksforum.com.

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