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Outrigger canoe made for Pacific takes on a prairie lake

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Anglers in a motorboat cut through the waves as paddlers Sepestian Mateus, Singeru Elias, Vincente Diaz and Gabriel Diaz maneuver the outrigger canoe. Tom Cherveny / Tribune 2 / 6
A fresh crew turns the craft around in a quiet bay on Lac qui Parle Lake. From left are Findy Yowanes, Gabriel Elias, Gabriel and Nat Chang-Deutsch, and Michael Elias. Tom Cherveny / Tribune3 / 6
A traditional paddle for an outrigger canoe. Tom Cherveny / Tribune4 / 6
The sail was tested on land during a practice run. In the Federated States of Micronesia, the use of the wind-powered outrigger canoes is being promoted as an economical option to gas powered boats. Tom Cherveny / Tribune5 / 6
Vincente ''Vince" Diaz, at right, explained how to manage the outrigger canoe's sail. From left, Michael Elias, Gabriel Elias, and Findy Yowanes are shown. Tom Cherveny / Tribune 6 / 6

MILAN - Gusty winds bore down the length of Lac qui Parle Lake, chasing up waves like a whitewater run on a wild river.

They were no match for an outrigger canoe designed for riding the swells of the Pacific Ocean.

Its crew of sailors were all new to this, but they laughed as they rode the waves and tested their time-proven craft on waters so far from its home.

“It’s a great platform for teaching language, culture and history,’’ said Vincente “Vince” Diaz of the watercraft. He brought the outrigger canoe to Randall’s Milan Beach Resort on Lac qui Parle Lake on Sept. 3.

His crew of paddlers were members of Milan’s Micronesian community. Some said they remember seeing outrigger canoes on their home island in the State of Chuuk, a part of the Federated States of Micronesia. They were very young at the time, maybe 5 years old, said one of the paddlers, Michael Elias. None had prior experience with the craft.

Diaz is an associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. A native of Guam, he is a researcher and author on the indigenous people of the Pacific. He has a great interest in outrigger canoes, and once produced a documentary on their important role in the lives of the people of the Pacific.

“They are the most dispersed people in the world,’’ said Diaz of what are known as the Austronesian people. Thanks to their watercraft, they can be found from Southeast Asia to the east coast of Africa. Remnants of their outrigger and double-hulled canoes have also been found on the western coasts of Peru and California. Their arrival in the Americas pre-dates Columbus by 400 or more years, he said.

The outrigger canoe that rode the waters of Lac qui Parle Lake so easily had been built in Guam, but its design and technology owe to the people living on a small atoll in the state of Chuuk known as Polowat. Diaz said some of the people on the state’s more remote islands had preserved the culture and technology of outrigger canoes.

A revival has been taking place, and the use of the sea-worthy craft is being encouraged for modern day fishing and transport. “They’ve revived the traditions in the last 30 to 40 years in real, spectacular ways,’’ said Diaz.

This craft was displayed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. as part of a world conference on indigenous people. The expense of shipping it back led the Institute to ask Diaz if he was still interested in keeping it instead. “Of course,’’ he said.

He has previously taught at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois. This craft has proven itself - and attracted plenty of attention - on a lake near Champagne, Illinois.

It attracted lots of attention at Randall’s Milan Beach Resort too. Before they took it to the water, Diaz offered instructions to his sailors, along with lessons on how to raise its sail. Diaz judged wind conditions too risky for a novice crew of sailors that day, but plans are to bring it back to the lake on calmer days.

Diaz and his colleague, David Chang, American Indian instructor with the University of Minnesota, are hoping to help the Micronesian community build an outrigger canoe of their own this coming year.

They are also reaching out to the Dakota and Ojibwe communities. They are interested in discussing the canoe cultures of Minnesota’s native communities.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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