The ‘Don’ Of A New Day

You’re probably wondering what originally sparked my interest in non-instrument navigation and traditional technologies.

Why do I care? Good question, and I shall tell you!

In 2006, I witnessed Grand Ronde tribal elder Don Day split a felled 200-year-old western red cedar log with a 30-pound wooden mallet. He’d use the planks to build a longhouse on his reservation and, in the process, provide a gathering space for ceremonies and celebrations that had been missing for hundreds of years ever since — you guessed it — the White Man arrived.

Don Day, left, demonstrates plank splitting. (Photo by Becky Taylor, 2006)

Standing there, I scanned the reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde for buildings, houses, people, dogs. There weren’t many, at least not back then. Maybe the place has since changed. The tribe does operate a casino, but that’s located elsewhere. This place seemed so empty. Not like those tribal members brimming with knowledge of their native folklore and customs, and who still speak the last remaining words of an endangered language. Don handed me the mallet so I could feel the tool’s weight in my hands. Whoa, it was heavy. Scrapes and bruises covered the mallet, which looked near breaking. But not just yet. Not with work left to do.

He split the massive log surprisingly quick, it seemed to me. But I wasn’t the one heaving a 30-pound mallet. I also wasn’t the one on a single-minded pursuit with centuries of history and cultural pride powering the muscles in my arms.

On another afternoon, I followed Don deep into the Willamette National Forest in western Oregon, where the U.S. Forest Service had alerted him to another fallen tree. They had an arrangement. He’d use a chainsaw to chop up this tree just enough so he could load the pieces into his truck and head back to the reservation, eager to split this new material into usable planks.

I don’t know if Don Day ever finished building the longhouse, and I don’t really want to know. Maybe I’m worried I’ll be let down.

In the following years, I’ve sought out stories about other people resuscitating a lost art. There was the cob builder in Sacramento, who built ovens and planters mixing together clay, sand and straw. Dump in some water and do the chicken dance on the mix until the consistency is as thick as peanut butter. There you have it, folks, an ancient tradition that dates back 11,000 years.

I’ve also come across flintknappers and basketweavers, and read about radical homemakers who forgo modern devices to live simply, off the earth. But my search for practitioners of traditional technologies hasn’t turned up very much, at least not without me traveling several hundred miles to find them. Which brings me back to my quest to write about the revival of ancient Polynesian voyaging.

Wow, you sure do ask a lot of questions. This is starting to get a little too personal and now I’m feeling uncomfortable. I shall answer no more of your questions! (Try again tomorrow).