Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Carving the Tlingit Canoes






















 About two years ago, in an empty lot right near the Hoonah City Office, in the middle of town, one of the oddest looking buildings that one could imagine started to take shape. The upper half was narrow and the bottom was wide. It reminded me of a grain silo back in the mid-west. Apparently the steel  beams being used were once something else and had been salvaged. Frankly, it looked like a scab on a Polar Bear's behind, as my friend Uncle Bill used to say. I couldn't imagine why it was being erected right in such a visible part of town. I asked the mayor about it and he said the structure belonged to the Hoonah Indian Association. When I asked what it was for, he said it was for canoe storage. It was so tall we were wondering if they were planning on setting the canoes upright. Even after the outside skin was applied it still doesn't  look like anything that most folks would want in the middle of their town. Nonetheless, it does serve a purpose. As you can see from the pictures, the building is housing a canoe carving project. A gentleman from Haines, I believe his name is Wayne Price, is carving a canoe for the Glacier Bay Tribal House project. I believe that when it's finished that the plan is to paddle it up to Glacier Bay, although I could be mistaken about that. This particular canoe is forty feet long and is made from a spruce log, similar to the one in the picture. At the present, there are at least two, maybe three more spruce logs waiting for his expertise. When I asked if this represented a war canoe, he said no, but he would be carving a war canoe to honor all the vets here in Hoonah. I thought that was kind of cool. Hoonah has provided a large number of vets from World War Two to the present time. I asked  Mr. Price about seats. He mentioned that they would be putting some in once it had been steamed and widened. When I inquired about that he said they would fill the canoe with water and then put in a number of hot rocks to create the steam. The wood will get soft and they will take wooden stakes to spread it apart at the top. When it dries, it will maintain it's shape. One of the more interesting facts he mentioned was how they determine how much wood to take from the inside. He said they drill holes to the depth that they want the thickness to be and insert pegs or dowels. When they are inside carving away the wood, once they reach the peg, they know they need to stop. One of his helpers was working on a much smaller canoe. I asked about it and he said it was the life raft. At first I thought he was serious. You could only save one or two people with it. Then he started laughing and said it was for the town of Skagway, in the northern part of the Panhandle. I guess its for kids to hop in so they can get a picture. I had noticed that the floor was littered with big chips of  wood from the canoe. He said he was going to hang on to them and pass them out so people could put names of loved ones who had succumbed to alcohol or drugs and died. I believe one of the canoes was to be a healing canoe for that reason. Though I'm sure I've heard the sound of chainsaws coming from the building early in the project, hand tools are being used to carve out the inside of the canoes. The tools have been hand made for this purpose and I'm sure there is a great deal of satisfaction in putting something you've made  to use. I didn't spend too much time talking, but the little time I was there was enlightening and I came away with a better understanding of what was happening and a new appreciation for the skill that Mr. Price, his helpers and their ancestors were blessed with.

9 comments:

  1. I remember when I was maybe a freshman and they carved the canoe in front of the school. It was pretty amazing to watch.

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    1. Hi Todd- I somewhat remember that. Did Mr.G. have a hand in that? It seems like at some point the wood dried out and some kind of repair had to be made to it. That's the problem with wood in this climate. The constant freezing and thawing, and of course if it's under cover it dries out and checks. If it's out in the rain it rots, and if it's in the salt water, even thought the wood gets pickled, there are all kinds of parasites and marine growth to deal with. Oh well.

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    2. The repair I'm aware of wasn't due to wood drying out. I think that was the story produced to protect the person who accidentally backed a truck into it....

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    3. Now that you mention it, I believe you're right. I think one of the teachers was plowing the parking lot and backed into it.

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  2. Replies
    1. HI JB- Thanks for commenting. It was really interesting talking to the master carver. He's carved a number of these canoes, I can't recall how many now, but at the time that I talked to him, he said that they had thirteen weeks invested in this one and wasn't sure when it would be completed.

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  3. Very cool. Really interesting.

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    1. Hi David- hope things are going well for you there. Amber and Camille took Northwest Coast Art and carved paddles out of yellow cedar and decorated them. Of course the paddles were a miniature version of the real deals. I believe that there is a class being taught in conjunction with the canoe carving where they are making full length paddles. The postmaster is taking the class and said it's pretty interesting. Lot's of talent and lots of skill involved.

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  4. Sure miss doing the northwest coast artwork...miss carving drawing and painting. Still have yellow cedar Jen sent me one year...just haven't had the time or ambition for a long while. Love you

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