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Yukon First Nation celebrates launch of new Tlingit dugout canoe

It took 80 days, but a 450-year-old cedar log has been transformed into a 10-metre traditional Tlingit dugout canoe. The canoe was recently revealed in a ceremony.

After 80 days of work, a 10-metre traditional cedar canoe is now seaworthy

Carver Wayne Price from Haines, Alaska, and Violet Gatensby of Carcross get ready to launch a traditional Tlingit dugout canoe on Nares Lake near Carcross, Yukon. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

From the beginning, the canoe's purpose was to bring the Carcross/Tagish First Nation together.

It has taken 80 days of working seven days a week for a 450-year-old red cedar log to be hand-carved into a solid, one-piece traditional Tlingit dugout canoe.

Wayne Price, a Tlingit master carver from Haines, Alaska, and a small team of Carcross/Tagish apprentices chipped away at the massive log to create the same kind of canoe their ancestors used 10,000 years ago.

At a ceremony in Carcross, Yukon, Price talked about the journey of the red cedar log to its transformation into a beautiful work of art. 

But Price and his apprentice carvers were not ready to hand over the 10-metre canoe just yet.

It has taken 80 days of working seven days a week for a 450-year-old cedar log to be hand-carved into a solid one-piece, 10-metre traditional Tlingit dugout canoe. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"Right now we hold title to this. We are going to do what we call a carver dance. I have the tools we are bringing that built this boat," Price said in an emotional speech as Carcross/Tagish citizens gathered in a circle around the canoe.

"We are going to dance around the dugout, and when we are done with that dance, we release title, and from that moment on the dugout belongs to all of you,'' he said 

'It's our life'

Price said releasing the canoe felt good.

"There is such an emotional attachment to ​this ​creation," he said. "It​'s​ ​our​ ​art. It's our life." 

Price ends his speech with a "Hoo-Ha," a Tlingit expression for happy, unified strength.

He said he wanted to share his knowledge of traditional canoe building.

'We are going to dance around the dugout, and when we are done with that dance, we release title, and from that moment on the dugout belongs to all of you,' said Wayne Price a master carver from Haines, Alaska. (Mike Rudyk/CBC )

"I want to help anywhere and everywhere I go to make some changes in all of our lives," he said. "Usually, the first choice — which is not a good one — is not the only choice and if you rely on the culture and let it guide you in the right direction, it will fill your life. You will have no need for anything else."

Price said that wisdom from his elders has changed his life.

'They are more aware of who they are'

Lynda Dickson, the newly-elected chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, is proud of the dugout and how far her First Nation has come.

It has not been easy for First Nation over the years, from the arrival of Gold Rush settlers, to the establishment of Christian mission schools. 

She said the canoe has brought a sense of pride to the community and changed the youth who worked on it.

"I'm pretty sure that these kids are probably going to take a different path now because of their culture and they are more aware of who they are," said Dickson. 

'There is such an emotional attachment to a creation, it's our art, it's our life,' said Wayne Price, a Tlingit master carver from Haines, Alaska. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Blood, sweat and tears

Violet Gatensby worked on the canoe from the beginning. She is already an established artist, but being part of the canoe's creation was an opportunity of a lifetime for her, she said. She gave it her time, energy and love.

She had tears of joy when handing the dugout canoe over to her First Nation.

"I put my heart and soul ... everything into that boat, blood, sweat and tears quite literally. And now it's not mine anymore," she said. "That's a tough thing to swallow because you spend a lot of time with it."

'I put my heart and soul ... everything into that boat, blood, sweat and tears quite literally. And now it’s not mine anymore,' said apprentice Violet Gatensby, second from left. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"It's like your baby, you know, you get this fresh piece of wood. It's got nothing, it's brand new into the world. It's like raising a child. It's like now my child is 18 years old and being set free in the world."

The First Nation is looking at making the first ocean-going journey with the dugout in the spring of 2020 at the Tlingit Celebration in Juneau, Alaska. The bi-annual Tlingit gathering showcases Tlingit from Alaska, Yukon and North America.

"The dugouts have taken care of us for 10,000 years," Price said. "There is no reason why we can't believe they will continue to take care of us​ ​on into the future. Our ancestors designed a wonderful craft.​"

'The dugouts have took care of us for 10,000 years. There is no reason why we can’t believe, they will continue to take care of us,' said master carver Wayne Price. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

About the Author

Mike Rudyk

Reporter, CBC Yukon

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