Tule Magnificent

Linda Yamane’s tule reed boats honor Ohlone tradition, ancient technologies

Tule Magnificent
A member of the Pomo tribe in a tule boat in 1902. Tule reeds played a key part in the lives of native people throughout California, used in everything from boats to baskets. / Image courtesy Getty Images

For thousands of years, indigenous peoples throughout the current-day Bay Area used tule reeds to create a range of tools, clothing, and equipment, including variations of reed boats, mostly used for fishing and transportation.

While some of these traditions faded away as California’s Native Americans experienced the effects of colonization, Ohlone native and scholar Linda Yamane has spent more than three decades resurrecting many of the ancient technologies and sustainable ways of her ancestors. And her graceful reed canoes—like the 8.5-foot version commissioned by Santa Clara University’s de Saisset Museum—are among the most breathtaking of her creations.

Tule Boat at Museum
The tule boat on display at the de Saisset Museum during inauguration week. It becomes part of the museum’s permanent collection in winter 2020. / Image by Charles Barry

The Seaside resident constructs her boats, called kónon in her Monterey-area Rumsien Ohlone language, using the tule reeds that still flourish in California’s wetlands.

“My work to bring back long-lost traditions has been satisfying on so many levels, especially to showcase the beauty and complexity of Ohlone culture, both for our own community and as a way of educating the public at large,” says the soft-spoken artist.

Yamane’s tule reed canoes aren’t just cultural heritage artwork; they are functional. The reason is the delicate internal structure of the tule reed that is filled with thousands of tiny air pockets, giving the reed its lightweight flexibility and buoyancy.

Thousands of years before their encounter with Spanish explorers in 1769, the Ohlone tribes of the Greater Bay Area used tule reeds not just for boats, but for thatching, as seen in the de Saisset Museum’s model-size conical tule reed house. Tule reeds, says Lauren Baines,’08, ’09the museum’s assistant director, were also used to make mats, duck decoys, and occasionally in baskets.

A journey back in time

It was a journey into her past that launched Yamane’s interest in tule boats. Growing up in San Jose, she cherished the stories of her paternal grandmother, who had also instructed her in the medicinal uses of native plants.

Hear the language of the Ohlone whose ancestral home includes Santa Clara in this Ohlone welcome at the inauguration of SCU President Kevin O’Brien, S.J

Yamane understood that most of her family’s Ohlone cultural traditions had been lost, and she wondered about her ancestral language and songs, the types of items they had made, and even their traditional food.

She was nearly 30 when she began investigating her Rumsien roots in earnest, a daunting task given that so few accessible historical records existed. But her perseverance paid off when she discovered unpublished field notes written in the 1930s, originally archived in the Smithsonian, that described many of the skills and beliefs of her Ohlone ancestors.

Yamane knew that her family’s Ohlone roots began in the Carmel Valley and Monterey area, and through mission records she discovered that one of her ancestors was baptized in 1773 at what is now known as the Carmel Mission; that girl later moved with her family to an area near Mission Santa Clara. One century and four generations later, Yamane’s great-grandmother was baptized as an infant at Mission Santa Clara.

Beginning with baskets

It was 1984 when she began working to revive some of their practices, beginning with Ohlone basket weaving, examples of which were hard to find because Ohlone traditionally burned the belongings of those who had died. The few dozen baskets known to exist worldwide had been acquired during the Mission Period by early visitors to California’s Central Coast. So Yamane traveled to museums in California, New York City, Washington D.C., London and Paris to study the old baskets in those collections.

Video by Wood Culture Tour / Via YouTube

“I’m a person who makes things with my hands, so it was natural for me to be interested in tangible objects, and learn about these various old-time technologies,” she says. So far, Yamane has created 24 baskets, as well as feather dance capes and headdresses, ear ornaments, abalone necklaces, musical instruments and of course, boats.

Her introduction to tule boat-making occurred in 1987 as part of a group effort at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont. As they worked, she took photos, drew sketches and made notes about the laborious process.

Fifteen productive years went by, during which Yamane began learning the Rumsien Ohlone language and traditional songs. Through further research, she came across a number of traditional stories, some of which she compiled in two published volumes: When the World Ended, How Hummingbird Got Fire, How People Were Made (Oyate, 1995) and The Snake That Lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains & Other Ohlone Stories (1998 Oyate).

Then, one day in 2002, she decided she wanted to make a tule reed boat. “So I got out those old notes and said, ‘Oh yeah, now I remember!’’’ Yamane recalls.

Her initial attempts were awkward, she admits, and not as sophisticated as the ones that later became mainstays in museums. But boat after boat, her skills improved, and she has now produced 30, several of them commissioned by museums and visitor centers in the Monterey and San Francisco Bay Areas and Sacramento. (The de Saisset model is constructed to hold just one or two people, but larger ones could hold four or more passengers.)

“The process can be overwhelming, to be honest. It’s a lot of physical labor to harvest, transport and dry all the raw plant material,” says the active 70-year-old. “It’s a lot of work, and I’m not getting any younger.”

A painstaking process

The first part of her process begins in early July, after bird-nesting season ends in regional marsh areas, and she is able to harvest hundreds of the tall green reeds. Sometimes, friends will join her at a dry pond or lake’s edge to help cut the long stalks that will be bundled and carried to her car, and taken home.

Cutting tule for the boat built for SCU. / Video courtesy Yamane

Once there, she loosens the bundles and lays them out to dry, turning them daily for several weeks so their moisture evaporates, watching their color change from green to beige.

Then she bundles the dried reeds, binding them tightly together with rope, and begins to build the boat. While her ancestors would have probably used rope made from tule or cattail, Yamane says the amount of time it would take to assemble that much rope would be impractical today. So she uses commercially-made products, including sea grass, that resemble the handmade rope of the past. The entire process, from harvesting to finished product, takes about a month of consistent labor, but is spread over several months because of the drying time.

“It’s a graceful, elegant design, but with raw and spontaneous natural elements that come through,” says Baines of the final product.

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Yamane’s tule reed boats are actually deployed in the water during the site’s popular outdoor summer program, “Turning the Tide,” in which performers paddle Yamane’s crafts around the site’s Great Tide Pool before amazed tourists.

But when the program first began several years ago, the boats didn’t fare well after being left in the water for week after week without having a chance to dry in between use. Over time, water soaks into the boat’s interior and the moisture is unable to evaporate, leading to mold and mildew and a distorted size. The boats swelled to an estimated 750 pounds and required a small crane to lift them out of the water.

“The first boat was so heavy that the crane’s engine was overloaded and shut down,” recalls Yamane.

The second year, the aquarium asked Yamane if she could adapt the traditional design to the aquarium’s needs, and wondered if she could build the boat onto a substructure that wouldn’t absorb water. That would avoid the waterlogging problems of the first year.

They were still exploring solutions when a team member noticed some inexpensive surfboards for sale at Costco and wondered if the boards could be the answer. Yamane took a look, did some thinking, and came up with an idea that worked.

She figured out how to build a tule reed boat right onto the surfboard, which substitutes for the largest bundles that provide most of the buoyancy and weight of the boat.

“You can’t see it when the boat is in use,” she says, “but it eliminates a huge amount of plant material that would normally absorb water. It really helps.”

Linda Yamane in a tule boat
Ohlone native and scholar Linda Yamane paddles a tule boat she constructed for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which uses it in an interactive, educational show. / Image courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium

Yamane’s tule reed boat, among other Native American artifacts at the de Saisset’s new history exhibition, should also help visitors of all ages learn more about the Golden State’s imperfect past.

“I hope that the things I make will help visitors to consider and appreciate the experience of Ohlone peoples, how they lived in the past, and that we are still living and thriving here today,” says Yamane.

As for the Ohlone community itself, she believes her work “has brought knowledge and a feeling of cultural pride to at least some,” she says, “and can potentially help heal the wounds we have experienced through the traumatic events of history and the cultural loss that followed.”

Linda Yamane’s tule reed boat, along with several baskets and soap roots brushes commissioned for Santa Clara University’s de Saisset Museum, will go on permanent display as part of the museum’s renovated California history exhibition, “California Stories from Thámien to Santa Clara,” which will open in January 2020.

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