KANSAS CITY — More than 200 people lined up Tuesday morning at the boat ramp where the Missouri River flows past Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan. They weren't there to ease their canoes into the water, but to watch.
Everyone stopped what they were doing to watch six members of the Its Woot Rivermen racing team and their canoe become purified by a Kiowa Indian early Tuesday morning in the drizzling rain and abnormally cool July weather.
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People gawked at the ritual and held their cameras ready to document the strange event. Each team member stood with their arms spread while white smoke from a burning sagebrush was slowly blown onto them with prayer feathers. Dressed in a loose white shirt with large white buttons the indian stood out from the crowd of T-shirt clad onlookers as he waved two long black feathers at a team member's right arm, then left arm and finished at their chest.
“No pictures please, this is a sacred ritual,” said Donnie Deerpath, a Kiowa Indian from Mound City.
The ceremony finished with the smudging of the canoe, where the charred sagebrush is spread underneath the canoe. The ritual rids the canoe of any bad aura and will provide luck for the long four-day race along the Missouri River. The Its Woot Rivermen are one of the teams competing in this year's Missouri River 340, a trek for canoeists and kayakers that takes paddlers 340 miles down the Missouri River to St. Charles.
After the blessing, the team got in their canoe and shouted “Yaa-ta hey,” a universal Indian greeting, to their friends and family members and everyone else watching from the boat ramp, waiting for the start of the race.
The Its Woot Rivermen racing team is part of the Discovery Exploration organization that from 2003 to 2006 reenacted the Lewis and Clark expedition across America. It is racing in the MR340 for the first time. They are not racing for to fulfill personal goals or enjoy an adventure, however, but are racing to represent the Chinook Indian tribe.
The Its Woot Rivermen racing team is made up of history buffs that were recruited by the Discovery Exploration organization for the reenactment. Crewmember Arlen Beck of Davenport, Iowa, said they read from Lewis and Clark’s journal every morning to get a sense of what they did each day on the trip and what they will be doing 200 years later.
They followed the same path as Lewis and Clark and camped at the same locations. Tom Ronk of Jefferson City said that if Lewis and Clark had camped near modern day Kansas City, they camped there. The only difference was the modern-day travelers used satellite cell phones to keep in touch with communities where had planned to make presentations and they used a motorized canoe because many of the rivers are no longer navigable with paddles.
“The primary focus of the expedition across the country is to retell the story of Lewis and Clark 200 years later. They were a big part of our nation and who we are,” Beck said.
Along the way, the crew met the Chinook Indian tribe in Washington state. The Chinooks provided a canoe for Lewis and Clark and aided them along the way. After meeting the tribe, crewmember Dick Brumley of Lewistown Mont., decided to build a replica Chinook canoe to authenticate the trip and use for the trip back. No one had ever done this before, and Ray Gardner, the chairman of the Chinook tribe, said that he wasn’t excited about the idea in the beginning. But after getting to know the crew the tribe was more than happy to help.
“A lot of it was getting to know the individuals,” Gardner said. "We worked with them for about a year, and it became apparent they were in it not to promote self interest, but to represent Lewis and Clark,” Gardner said.
The canoe the Its Woot Riverman are using is a 31-foot long black and red replica made out of cedar that can hold 10 paddlers. It has a carved deer head in the front, and underneath the head of the deer is a small black block that represents the heart of the deer. It is covered in charcoal and bear grease. Brumley said the heart means that the canoe must be treated like family, and if someone gets inside it, they must refrain from arguments.
Gardner said the canoe is the only non-Indian crafted canoe to be blessed by the Chinooks. Team member Sid Stoffles of Auburn, Calf., said he was amazed at the sacred ritual of Gardner's blessing that involves sweeping the canoe with cedar bows, providing the heart and other secret rituals that Gardner couldn’t share.
“One of my most moving moments on the entire trip was that sense of Ray’s blessing,” Stoffles said. “You just take the good energy the blessing provided into the canoe and it follows you.”
After finishing the trip, Ronk said they wanted to give something back to the Chinook for the kind way the tribe treated them and Lewis and Clark in 1803-1804. After hearing about the MR340, they decided to represent them in an effort to help get the Chinook Nation Recognition Act passed. Gardner said he is humbled by their effort.
“I’ve been impressed and honored by what Dick and folks are doing for our situation out here,” Gardner said.
The team decided on the MR340 because it is one of the longest races in the nation, and it is in Missouri where Lewis and Clark began their journey.
“This is the longest river race, and if we enter Its Woot into a race, then this would be the one,” Ronk said.
Because the six members of the team live in different parts of the country, they have only practiced for the race for 10 hours. However, because of their long voyage and the unique design of the team's canoe, it shouldn’t be a problem.
“Its Woot is built so well, and with no wind, she will respond almost immediately But she’s pretty fast too,” Ronk said.
However, the history of the race is working against the Its Woot Rivermen because only two teams of more than four have ever finished. However, they think that the team's technique of using three rowers at a time and their experience from the renactment will help them.
“We all have personal goals of doing the best we can. But part of the reason other teams don’t make it is because 60 to 70 percent of the race is mental,” Ronk said. “And we have a brotherhood here, we got along on the trip, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Even if the team doesn’t finish in the allotted time of 88 hours, Gardner plans to great them at the finish line. Both groups are planning to exchange honorary gifts, including an honorary Chinook button blanket, to mark the accomplishment.