'It's in the core of who we are': Work underway on Tlingit canoe in Haines Junction

One master carver from Alaska and seven apprentices from Haines Junction will transform a 450-year old piece of red cedar into a traditional Tlingit dugout canoe. In the process, they're reconnecting with their culture and with one another.

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations hope the nine-metre canoe will take to the water next spring

Carvers work on a nine-metre cedar canoe in Haines Junction, Yukon. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

As the pile of wood chips grows on the ground, the smell of cedar fills the air in a tent in Haines Junction.

Alaskan Tlingit master carver Wayne Price and his apprentices are transforming a 450-year-old red cedar log into a nine-metre ocean-going dugout canoe, crafted in the traditional style

Steve Smith, Chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, looks on and breathes in the cedar-fumed air. It reminds him of the Pacific Northwest, and of reuniting with his coastal Tlingit relatives in Haines, Alaska.

"It's almost something that comes from a long time ago, I think it's in the core of who we are," Smith said. "Much of our culture was hidden in the backroom and now for these young people, they get to explore and be a part of it. I think it's an amazing opportunity for them."

This is the second canoe to be crafted by Price in conjunction with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. In 2019, CAFN members embarked on an ocean journey from Haines to Juneau in a seven-metre dugout canoe. They realized a larger and longer canoe would be safer on the ocean. 

Price, a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, taught himself how to carve the ancient canoes after studying surviving dugouts from the past. It has become his lifelong passion: this canoe is his 13th project.

Wayne Price, a master Tlingit carver from Haines, Alaska, is working on his 13th traditional dugout canoe in Haines Junction. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

He's spending the summer in Haines Junction teaching youth in the community how to build dugout canoes in the traditional way.

"I have never seen anything that grabs and makes a person change their lives like Indigenous watercraft," he said. 

The process of learning how to build canoes reconnects students with their culture, Price said. In the process they also learn work and safety skills.

"I'm able to take a completely green crew of seven students who absolutely know nothing about a dugout [and] train them to keep them safe," he said. "They're involved in how to create a northern-style dugout that's also a healing canoe for a lot of these issues we run into in our lives." 

WATCH: First Nations youth transform 450-year-old cedar tree into ocean-going canoe

450-year-old cedar tree being transformed into ocean-going Tlingit dugout canoe

3 months ago
With the help of a master boat builder, youth from the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations are carving a log from a massive cedar tree into a nine-metre Indigenous watercraft. 3:37

'She knows exactly who we are'

 As they carve the craft out of the massive raw log, they forge a deeper connection to the cedar tree. Khâsha, born Steven Reid but now going by his traditional Tlingit name, said the process is sacred.

"It [the tree] waited its whole life to come here and now it's here. We have to be respectful around this grandfather, grandmother. She knows exactly who we are and exactly what we are doing," he said. "She also challenges us to look at ourselves with whatever we are struggling with."  

Khâsha said he's deeply honoured to be able to work with Price.    

Khâsha, born Steven Reid but now going by his traditional Tlingit name, said the process of carving a traditional dugout canoe is sacred. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"We have a lot of young people including myself who have never done this," he said. "Working on a 30-foot dugout is absolutely amazing. It's mind-blowing that he has endeavoured to do this and he is here every day seven days a week."

Work on the canoe will continue until the late fall.

Price said it will then be honoured next spring when it takes its maiden voyage from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau for Tlingit Celebration, a cultural gathering normally held every two years with Indigenous people coming from Alaska and Canada.

Then, Price said, Tlingit from both sides of the border will have a chance to bond with the canoe and each other.

"Indigenous watercraft have played a huge role for the last 10,000 years," he said. "We had to have them to hunt, to fish, to gather, to go to potlatches, to travel. We kept in contact with each other. It's such a cultural connection."


Mike Rudyk

Reporter, CBC Yukon

Mike Rudyk has worked for CBC Yukon since 1999, as a reporter and videographer. He lives in Whitehorse.