Carving a tie to the past

June 2, 2009

By Christopher Huber

John Mullen is reviving Snoqualmie Tribe’s tradition of crafting canoes

The canoe Spirit of the Salmon is about 27 feet long. By Christopher Huber

Snoqualmie Tribe Master Carver John Mullen loves his job. There’s a spiritual element to it that most people don’t experience on a daily basis, or ever, for that matter.

His works speak to him.

The Beaver Lake resident hand carves canoes, but the craft goes much deeper than hacking at wood.

“Regardless of what we work on or even what we do, the water will talk to you, the trees’ll talk to you. It’s just sitting here and listening,” Mullen said about the spiritual aspect of his craft. “I tell them (students), ‘Use your imagination. Listen.’ It’s not just the native people. Everybody has it. It’s something you can’t teach. It’s just there.”

Before he and his apprentice carvers begin their work on a canoe at the tribe’s Snoqualmie shop, they gather in a circle around the untouched log and thank it for giving itself to them. The next day, they come to work with ideas they dreamed about and begin forming the canoe.

“You can’t plan it out. There’s no blueprints,” Mullen said. “It’s all just knowledge passed on.”

Why he does it

For the past seven years, Mullen, a former candy maker for Seattle Gourmet Foods and construction worker, has worked to revive the Snoqualmie Tribe’s nearly dead practice of traditional canoe carving. The initial draw, he said, was the challenge of carving sea-worthy vessels 25-50 feet long.

“I knew the tribe needed it … someone to bring it back to life,” he said.

He, along with help from apprentices and advice from tribal elders, has completed four dug-out river and ocean-going canoes, as well as other, smaller projects.

“He makes you gain more respect for what you can do,” said Master Carver Apprentice Wayne Graika. “He makes you put pride in your work.”

Mullen’s current project is a 30-foot ocean-going strip canoe, set to be unveiled this month.

“Everybody’s going to drop their jaw when they pull this one out,” Jacob Mullen, master carver apprentice and John Mullen’s nephew, said while working in the shop.

The art of finding the right cedar log — most are up to 870 years old and cost between $20,000 and $30,000 — digging it out and finessing its every contour to cut efficiently through the water takes time. Each canoe takes roughly six months to complete, John Mullen said.

It’s partially because carvers use mostly traditional methods and tools. And it’s all done by hand, minus initial shaping with a chainsaw.

John Mullen uses a range of hand-made tools, many of which have blades set into antlers or deer-bone handles, to shape the enormous logs. The elbow adze chips away knots and large pieces of wood. The spoon-knife and curve-knife allow Mullen to smooth out areas or carve in nooks and crannies, and the antler hammer has many uses, such as knocking in pegs or driving a blade into the wood.

He teaches his students to work slowly, when necessary. There are times, he said, when the canoe won’t let you work on it.

“I don’t want to go in there and rush them and ruin a good thing,” he said.

Caretaker of the traditions

Although he didn’t get into the craft until his late 40s, John Mullen said carving and teaching come naturally. One of his highest priorities is passing on his knowledge to the youth. He said he finds joy in seeing their sense of accomplishment.

It’s “taking ‘em out and sitting in there and seeing the reaction of the young people, because they have successfully done something they’ve never done before,” he said. “Once it’s done, it’s seeing the smile on everyone’s face. That’s what makes me happy.”

He said the best part of being a master carver is seeing a youth grab hold of the traditions and skills he teaches, but which elders passed down.

“Every day, I learn something new about the elders and the young people,” he said. “Talking to the elders, they’re a history, a walking history.”

The physical and mental challenges also make him want to do this for a long time to come.

I like “the challenge of it all and to prove not only to myself, but to others, that it could actually be done,” he said.

As he sat on his porch overlooking Beaver Lake, he told a story of “Ms. Elsie,” a canoe he and his students finished last summer.

“We started with the chainsaw on the bow and stern … and that was it,” he said. “She (the log) didn’t allow us to go more.”

When the crew was almost done carving, the real Ms. Elsie, a Snoqualmie elder, visited the project site and praised the guys’ work. She died soon after that and they named the canoe after her. But John Mullen said all of his tools remained uncharacteristically sharp and effective for the remainder of the months-long project.

“She showed up and told us what a wonderful job we were doing,” he said. “When we got done, there was a lot of pride, and her family loved it.”

He said he’ll probably never retire as he helps carry on a tradition in the Snoqualmie Tribe.

“I guess it was, I don’t know, in my blood. I never dreamt I would do it,” he said. “I didn’t get into it for the halo or the pat on the back.”

Reach Reporter Christopher Huber at 392-6434, ext. 242 or Comment on this story at

Bookmark and Share


Got something to say?

Before you comment, please note:

  • These comments are moderated.
  • Comments should be relevant to the topic at hand and contribute to its discussion.
  • Personal attacks and/or excessive profanity will not be tolerated and such comments will not be approved.
  • This is not your personal chat room or forum, so please stay on topic.