An island people discover their roots on the prairie

Milan's Micronesian residents building dugout canoe and outrigger

Gabriel Elias, left, and Moses Hauk use handmade tools to craft a dugout canoe in Milan with help from experienced canoe builders from Micronesia. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service

MILAN — Chippewa County is home to two of the state’s oldest preserved dugout canoes, one of which is carbon dated to the days of Christopher Columbus.

Soon, the county will also be home to one of the newest.

It’s being carved right now in Milan. The community’s Micronesian residents are crafting an authentic dugout canoe. They intend to launch it this fall, complete with outriggers and sail. It is to be built exactly like the outriggers their ancestors used for centuries on the open seas.

“It’s something we’ve never done before,” said Gabriel Elias, who grew up in Micronesia but has made Milan his and his family’s home now for 17 years. “We’re very excited to learn from these guys,” he added, as workers carved away at the canoe last week.


The "guys" to which he refers are helpers from Micronesia, including Lauriano Dillipy and Mario Benito. Dillipy, a native of Micronesia, has made five dugout canoes and is an accomplished boat builder.

Benito, who makes his home on the Polowat Atoll on the outer edges of the Micronesian Islands, is officially recognized in the Federated States of Micronesia as an ordained “navigator.” As a navigator, he has acquired the knowledge and skills of his forefathers to navigate on the open sea by the use of stars, fish, currents, the winds and other natural phenomena. He and companions once relied on those skills to sail an outrigger from the atoll to the island of Guam, a three-day adventure of more than 500 miles.

“It takes a lot of concentration,” said Benito of the navigation skills he has honed.

Turning a large tree into a watercraft takes a lot of concentration as well, not to mention hard labor and, especially, skill. The workers are using only hand tools, including handcrafted axes and knives, to carve it. The wood of the finished craft will be no thicker than the width of two fingers, according to Benito.

Along with sharing canoe-building skills, he has taken time to explain the rituals and traditions associated with the endeavor in Micronesia. He said it begins with the harvesting of the tree, when thanks are given and a promise made to maintain harmony with nature, he explained.

Milan’s Micronesian residents are from an island in Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia. The Micronesians comprise over half of the town’s population of 300-plus.

Most of the Micronesian adults are like Elias. They moved to the United States in their teenage or early adult years.

Elias, now age 39, said he wants to learn more about his heritage, and wants to be able to teach his own children as well.


Giving the Micronesian residents of Milan an opportunity to learn about their heritage is just one of the goals of this project. It has its roots in a visit two years ago by Benito and professor Vincent Diaz, who brought an outrigger canoe to Milan. Diaz is exploring the canoe-building heritage of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as well as those of the Polynesian people.

Members of the area’s Dakota communities, both the Upper Sioux and Lower Sioux, are working with the Micronesian population in Milan to craft this canoe. Along with sharing the skills and knowledge that each community holds, this is an opportunity for the communities to work together and build relationships, Elias said.

The canoe is being built under a canvas tent erected at the Lions Park on the town’s north end. Bob Ryan, of Bird Island, has worked to bring Benito, Dillipy, and Diaz to Milan. Ryan also located a logger able to provide the large ash tree being carved.

In Micronesia, breadfruit trees provide the raw wood for outrigger canoes. Benito and Elias noted that the use of a different wood adds to the challenge of this project.

They began work nearly two weeks ago, and expect to work for another month or more before launching it. Elias noted that non-Micronesian residents of Milan have been dropping by to watch the progress. He’s hoping some will also lend a hand and get involved in its building.

Elias said he’s already learned just how resourceful and skillful the helpers from Micronesia are. “I really thought we were going to help these guys,’’ Elias said. Instead, he said he feels as if he is doing as much learning as helping at this stage.

He and the helpers are all looking forward to launching the craft when it is completed, most likely on nearby Lac qui Parle Lake.

Chippewa County’s two dugout canoes are displayed at the Chippewa County Historical Society Museum in Montevideo. The one known as Ole’s Canoe dates to the days of Christopher Columbus, or the period 1436 to 1522, while the other was dated to the period 1626 to 1679. They are among the 10 dugout canoes known to be cared for by historical societies in the state.


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