Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has commissioned a Tlingit artist to make a traditional, cedar canoe for exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Artist Doug (Kevin) Chilton will carve the full size, Northwest Coast ocean-going dugout canoe at the Sealaska Plaza in Juneau, where the project will be broadcast live on the internet. The plan is to paddle the finished canoe up the Potomac River to Ocean Hall, an exhibit celebrating global oceans scheduled to open in September 2008. Ocean Hall will inhabit a grand, newly renovated space that spans one of the museum’s three central halls. The canoe will be part of the museum’s permanent collection.
One reason the Smithsonian chose to include a traditional Southeast Native canoe was to educate the public about Native people’s relationship with the ocean and its resources, said SHI President Rosita Worl.
“Seven million people a year visit the Smithsonian, and we think it’s great people will have the opportunity to learn about the Southeast Native cultures -- the Northwest Coast people’s dependence on maritime resources,” Worl said.
Southeast Alaska Natives historically were seafaring people – a fact chronicled in Native oral histories and further substantiated by recent archaeological evidence. Study of artifacts and 10,000-year-old human remains discovered in 1996 on Prince of Wales Island revealed that early peoples to Southeast Alaska subsisted on seafood and traveled in watercraft. The abundance of seafood and other natural sources allowed time for Native peoples to develop very sophisticated societies and to produce master works of art, Worl said.
“There is this long-term relationship with the oceans and here we see the development of very complex cultures in the Northwest coast region because of the rich maritime resources,” Worl said.
The log was donated by Sealaska Corporation, which held a tree ceremony when the cedar was felled in April on Prince of Wales Island. During the ceremony, Native people thanked the tree and explained to the tree how they would use it, offered food to the spirit of the tree and spread a blanket and feathers to catch the tree and ensure its safety in falling.
Chilton, the canoe carver, made an address to the tree’s spirit at the ceremony. Chilton (Yaa nak.ch) lives in Juneau and is a Tlingit of the Raven moiety, Deisheetaan Clan, Raven House of Angoon. He will be assisted by Tlingit artist Donald Gregory.
The project may be watched live on the internet. The institute plans to have a finished canoe by the end of the year.