Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Seeking inspiration from Ilchee, who paddled her own canoe

A vivid blue sky flecked with clouds calls me yet again to the north bank of the Columbia River to the sculpture of Ilchee. Friends and family know that on a sunny day, they may find me sitting on a bench near Ilchee, dreaming great dreams, planning  great plans, and scribbling in my journal.

Who is Ilchee and why does she inspire me in my new journey of adventure and joy?

At the base of the Ilchee sculpture are these words:

"In recognition of the People who have inhabited this region for thousands of years
--Ilchee, Moon Girl--

"History says she was born along the Columbia River about 1800, daughter of Chinook Chief Comcomly, and later wife of Chief Casino, leader in the Vancouver area.

"Lore tells us she had the power of a shaman and that she paddled her own canoe, the sign of a chief. By both accounts, she was remarkable."

Remarkable, indeed! More than 200 years ago, Ilchee was born at the mouth of the Columbia River, the eldest daughter of the great Chinook Chief Comcomly. She would have been a little girl when the Lewis and Clark expedition wintered at the mouth of the great river. I like to think that she met Lewis and Clark and even Sacagawea.

As a teenager, Ilchee was married to Duncan McDougall, the  chief factor (head honcho) of the fur trading post established in 1811 at the mouth of the river in present-day Astoria, Oregon. Her marriage to McDougall was a wise political move for her chief father and increased both Comcomly's and Ilchee's stature among the European Astorians.

However, when McDougall and his company abandoned the fur trading post to the Americans, he left Ilchee behind with her people.

Later, a marriage was arranged between Ilchee and Chief Casino, the Chinook chief upriver in present-day Vancouver, Washington. Ilchee left her people and started a new life with Casino. They had a son. When their son became ill and died. Casino blamed Ilchee for his death and planned to have her killed.

Fleeing from her husband's village, Ilchee sought refuge at Fort Vancouver, a British fur trading post on the north bank of the Columbia River. She stayed at the fort until her people could be summoned from downriver to come bring Ilchee home.

Very little has been recorded about Ilchee. After all, she was not only a woman, but a native woman. But the lore that has been passed down is that Ilchee was a woman of strength and fortitude. She paddled her own canoe, the sign of a chief.

Recently, with historian Donna Sinclair, I had the opportunity to meet Cliff Snyder, a direct descendent of Ilchee. He, too, spoke of Ilchee's strength.

I have sought both refuge and inspiration at this spot on the banks of the river near Ilchee's statue. Perhaps in this very place where I now stand she gazed at the river and dreamed great dreams as I do now.

It is here that I first summoned the courage to imagine that I could choose a happier, joyous life brimming with adventure and discovery. Here I first believed I could be strong enough to paddle my own canoe. And thanks to the inspiration of Ilchee, I am doing just that.

Paddle on!


  1. Don't just paddle, make some ripples, make a splash now and then!

    1. I'm splashing, Carolyn! Planning to paddle with the Mighty Women dragon boat team again on Thursday night. Plenty of splashing going on!