Many folks tend to think of Oregon history in terms of the rough and ready pioneer life that meant hardship and great adventure in the early 1800s, when covered wagons crossed the country to reach the Willamette Valley. But the Oregon story reaches back many thousands of years to a time that may fees distant and is largely based upon Native American legends and timeless stories.
Sharp tools are critical to keeping some traditions alive. So is learning how to use them, according to longtime wood carving instructor Jim Bergeron. “Once you’ve learned how to carve with these ancient tools – it’s like learning how to ride a bicycle, it’s real easy – but until you get there, it’s not easy at all.”
Jim Bergeron is a rare teacher of Native American wood carving techniques and styles that span the centuries. His students come from all over to learn from a master who creates cedar bentwood boxes, ceremonial masks and bowls of alder – each piece carved in the traditional Chinook Indian style.
The craft requires patience and attention to detail, according to student Kathleen Stratton. “It’s like gardening to me – it is the only thing sitting here before me and so I tend to forget about everything else and really focus on the carving.”
The classroom is open to any and all who travel to Astoria and step inside the new Barbey Maritime Center, a place itself steeped in history. It was once the Astoria Train Depot, built along the town’s waterfront more than 120 years ago.
The Center is next door neighbor to the must-see Columbia River Maritime Museum, where real native artifacts can be “seen and appreciated,” according to Dave Pearson. “The Martime Museum holds traditional crafts that are truly original artifacts found along the river or in archeological digs – plus there are very few opportunities where people can learn from an instructor like Jim Bergeron. He’s spent his entire career learning how to use the ancient tools and materials.”
Bergeron’s workshop shows that he’s been teaching native skills for nearly 40 years; there are scores of hand-crafted adzes made from cascara wood that hang from the rafters. His finished carvings are a marvel to see and touch, from monumental masks to a plate-sized “shark” mask worn in ceremonies and practical tools like a fishing spear of carved from alder and bone. “This tool was used in shallow water; you would spear the fish over the back and then the spear head disconnects, so you could play the fish with a long cord that is attached to the spear. A really a remarkable tool,” he said.
Bergeron said that his greatest hope for teaching the native carving skills is to keep tradition alive – and that more people will find beauty in the wood and find value holding onto Oregon’s distant past. “There really aren’t many people around doing this anymore, so I hope my teaching changes that! These skills were here for thousands of years, so I think it’s important local history and a part of the Oregon story.”