The Great Canoes

The Great Canoes

Published: 1995

The Great Canoes - David Neel

This book is about a journey: the journey of many nations, the journey of the great canoes of the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest.

These majestic vessels, crafted from a single log often hundreds of years old, all but disappeared early in this century. It is hard to explain why so little has been written about them, as they are probably the single most important aspect or Northwest Coast culture. To the Kwakwaka'wakw, the Haida, the Coast Salish, the Tsimshian, the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Tlingit and other coastal groups, the canoe was as important as the automobile is now to North America. With one crucial difference: the canoe was a spiritual vessel that was the object of great respect, from its life as a tree in the forest to its falling to earth as a log and finally its landing on the beach as a finished craft. As you read the words that follow, you will understand that respect continues to be a vital aspect of the contemporary canoe experience. The people speaking in these pages are some of those who make up the canoe community that has developed over the last several years. They dream big dreams, setting aside vast periods of time and sacrificing their financial security to live their culture. They have contributed to the return of the great canoe.

The canoe is today, as it has always been, much more than just a boat. The legends of the Pacific Coast First Nations tell of the time of the great flood, when the people tied their canoes together side by side. As the waters rose, the people took a stout cedar rope and attached their canoes to a mountaintop. Here they waited until the waters receded, and they were saved. Today, in its Renaissance, the canoe carries the knowledge of a millennia-old culture as well as the dreams and aspirations of a younger generation. It is a vessel of knowledge, symbolizing the cultural regeneration of many nations as they struggle to retain and rebuild following a period or systematic oppression and of rapid social and technological change. The great canoe has come back from the abyss a vital symbol for First Nations. Once a mode of transport, allowing our people to fish, gather food, trade and travel, it has evolved today into a healing vessel, deeply back from the abyss a vital symbol for First Nations. Once a mode of transport, allowing our people to fish, gather food, trade and travel, it has evolved today into a healing vessel, deeply affecting all those who come into contact with it. Young people particularly benefit from learning the way of the canoe.

The canoe is a metaphor for community, in the canoe, as in any community, everyone must work together. Paddling or "pulling" as a crew over miles of water requires respect for one another and a commitment to working together, as the old people did. All facets of the contemporary canoe experience - planning, building, fund-raising, practicing, travelling - combine to make our communities strong and vital in the old ways. There was a time not long ago when we lived several families to a bighouse and knew our family histories, by memory, for several generations back. We depended on one another for our livelihood. In front of our houses we constructed an awakawis, or meeting place, where we would pass the time, get to know our neighbors, be human together. The contemporary canoe is bringing families, villages and nations together again to work and share. First Nations who have historically been enemies, or have had long-standing issues dividing them, visit one another on our canoe journeys, hosting where once there was animosity. The canoe is helping us to be more human again. We work for something besides income; for a few precious days or weeks we forget about the clock, live by the tides. We stay up late in the villages we visit, singing and dancing, sharing our homes and our cultures. I have never before felt the level of brotherhood and sisterhood that comes out at our canoe gatherings.

The comeback of the canoe is a recent phenomenon. The magnificent fifty-foot LooTaas (Wave Eater), created in 1985-86, was one of the earliest of the great canoes to be built during this period of renaissance. Eminent Haida master Bill Reid, the head carver, was assisted by Guujaaw and Simon Dick as well as a number of others. Reid first carved a smaller canoe, using lines and measurements taken from a canoe in a museum collection, then adapted these measurements for the LooTaas. The fine vessel became an important addition to Haida culture, carrying Reid and a crew up the Seine River to Paris, France, in 1989 and travelling from Haida Gwaii to Hydaburg, Alaska, the same year to reconnect two nations divided by the imposition of the Canada/ U.S. border. A mold was made from the LooTaas, and fiberglass replicas, visually almost indistinguishable from the original once in the water, were produced. The importance of the LooTaas to the Haida underlines the need for a canoe to be used as a living part of First Nations culture.

The contemporary resurgence of the canoe is marked by a series of "paddles" that have significance far beyond the mere journeys involved The Heiltsuk people travelled in 1986 from their home in Bella Bella to the world's fair in Vancouver, but it was the 1989 Paddle to Seattle journey that spawned the revival of the great canoes among the ocean-going First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. Many people were Involved in the planning of this paddle, which took place during celebrations marking Washington State's 100th anniversary, but the late David Forlines, Terri Tavenner and Emmett Oliver were pivotal figures. In July of 1989 a canoe from Hoh, Washington, and two from La Push left for Golden Gardens, outside of Seattle, where they converged with a flotilla of Suquamish, Tulalip, Lummi and Heiltsuk canoes. Here a message was delivered to the people of Washington State. Signed by twenty-one Washington First Nations, it contained the words of the great Duwamish leader Chief Seattle, who had prophesied in 1855 that Native people, the traditional keepers of the land, would have to entrust the non-Native nation with that role. "The bones of your ancestors are now under your feet as ours have been for Millennia." the document reads. "We ask you to become true Americans, caretakers of our good Mother Earth and the great waters flowing with, not on, this place now called Washington State. We lived and died here for hundreds of generations, and we offer our assistance in your coming to balance as an adult."

It was during this gathering at Golden Gardens that the Qatuwas Festival was born. A member of the Heiltsuk canoe, Frank Brown, issued an invitation to all the canoe nations to gather In Bella Bella in four years' time. After conferring with the others present, David Forlines accepted the invitation. Brown was given the paddle of the senior Quileute elder and told, "We will come and get it in four years." Some questioned Brown's authority to issue such an invitation and oblige the Heiltsuk people as hosts, but in the end it was largely his energy and vision that fueled this pivotal event.

As word of the Qatuwas Festival circulated on the moccasin telegraph, enthusiasm grew. Many First Nations built canoes and started paddling for the first time in a century. The Heiltsuk rose to the occasion, hosting twenty-three canoes from up and down the coast. Qatuwas, in the Kwakwala language of the Heiltsuk Nation, means "people gathered together in one place," and close to two thousand people attended the week-long gathering in Bella Bella in the summer of 1993. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this event. In his welcome speech, Heiltsuk Tribal Council Chairman Edwin Newman said, "Native people are regaining their strength and culture, and this gathering is a sign that things are changing for our people."

The 1994 Tribal Journeys paddle, which began in Oweekeno, B.C., brought a number of canoes to Victoria for the opening of the Commonwealth Games. Each canoe carried the Queen's Baton through its traditional territory. Chief Frank Nelson, Musgama, and Danny Henry, Coast Salish, were the driving energy behind Tribal Journeys. This paddle was not without controversy, as some felt the First Nations were being exploited by the Commonwealth countries, many of which have a history of poor treatment of their aboriginal citizens.

The next big journey in the four-year cycle will be the 1997 paddle to La Push, Washington, at the invitation of the Quilcute Nation. This is expected to be the largest gathering to date. We are anticipating smaller journeys every summer until then.

The contemporary canoe has evolved into an important political tool. It serves to reinforce the existence and continuation of First Nations peoples and cultures in a social/political landscape that has endeavored to make us invisible. What greater wav to assert our presence, and the indomitability of our traditional culture, than by bringing fifteen or twenty great canoes into a coastal harbor? No one can help but be impressed 1M the graceful lines of these majestic ocean vessels. The Haida Nation have used their vessel. The LooTaas, to protest unregulated sport fishing in their traditional waters. The LooTaas is hard to ignore, all fifty feet of it, the prow rising six feet above the water.

The personal cost, in both income and time, can be very high for the builders and the paddlers of the great canoes. As one young paddler told me. "Our culture is expensive." A twenty-five-foot canoe costs about $30,000 to $35,000 to make. While some nations have sufficient funds to undertake the building of a large canoe, they are the exception. Many canoes are built by smaller villages, and in other cases an individual initiates the project. The paddlers too make a significant investment. The crew from Washington State travelled for two months on their epic journey to Bella Bella in 1993. Such a major commitment speaks to the value these pullers place on reviving a canoe tradition among their people. At one time whole villages would travel by canoe to visit and feast during the winter ceremonies. Spending two months away from home was possible, and not uncommon. Today, to take a sixth of your year to practice your culture is nearly impossible. As Tom Jackson of the Quilcute told me during our 1994 paddle to Victoria, "We just got our bills paid off from our trip to Bella Bella last year, and it was time to leave again." His village is now committed to hosting the 1997 gathering, so it may be 1998 before they get on top of their financial obligations again. The revival of our great canoes has been achieved through the tenacity of a relative handful of people who have put aside their personal needs to support our traditions.

Carving the canoe is a big responsibility: the carver takes the lives of future travelers in his or her hands. Traditionally, a carver followed a disciplined regime. Before he began, he would prepare himself spiritually through fasting, prayer and sweat lodge. He would abstain from sexual relations and avoid combing his hair so that cracks would not develop in the canoe. After making a test hole with elbow adze and chisel to check for inside rot, the carver would fell the ancient cedar himself using hand tools, a formidable job. A prayer was then said for the cedar, and an offering of thanks was given for its sacrifice for the canoe builder and his family. The carver did his work over a two-year period. He would rough-shape the log, first removing the bark and sapwood using an axe and an elbow adze. Then he would taper the ends and take out the wood between the high stern and bow. At this point the log would be left to "season" over the winter. This step was crucial in ensuring that the canoe did not crack too badly in later stages of carving. The following year, the carver returned with men from his village and towed the log to the ocean, where it was floated to a carving site on the beach. Here the canoe was finished.

The canoe site became a meeting place as people gathered to watch the canoe take shape. The old-timers used tools made from the incisor teeth of beavers, nephrite and jadeite. Metal shipwrecks that washed ashore - a material later obtained through trade - was used very early on. There were many different styles of canoe on the coast, with each tribal group, each village and each canoe builder having a distinctive design. There were also many types: sealing, whaling, freight, river, fishing and, most well-known, the war canoe.

The carver would establish the exterior lines of the canoe first. Next the inside would be hollowed out, with the carver using wedges to split our large sections, then controlled burning and finally adzing to complete the work. The final in shaping the canoe was to use hot rocks and water to steam-bend the sides outwards. Steaming also drew the bow and stern upwards as well as adding to the strength of the vessel. Following this, prow and stern pieces were added, and thwarts and seats installed. The exterior had to be surfaced, and many carvers did this by charring the wood with fire and then rubbing away, the charred portion. This process would remove burrs, harden the wood and draw the natural oils to the surface to act as a protectant. Finally the canoe was given a name, and it was ready to begin its life on the water.

Spirituality is still an integral part of the canoe experience. The blessing of the log is an important prerequisite to carving a traditional canoe. We give thanks to the cedar and acknowledge the spirit of the log. A canoe, coming from a soul sometimes more than a thousand years old, is a spiritual being. The finished canoe is given a name and launched with a ceremony. When it is worn out and needs to be replaced, the old bow piece is sometimes added onto a new canoe so as to continue the life of the previous vessel.

Today the experience of carving a canoe has changed, but the essential aspects of respect and ceremony remain. The demands of time in our modern world and the use of power tools have had both positive and negative effects. The canoe is a very sophisticated and highly evolved marine vessel. Building a traditional canoe involves thorough research of the old canoes in public collections, as well as talking with the handful of canoe builders who learned from their families.

There are many subtle yet important aspects of canoe construction that cannot be learned only through building. For example, the canoe starts to taper to bow slightly behind the halfway point, making the widest point of the vessel actually closer to the stern. The way the canoe enters or cuts through the water is just as important as the way it exits at the stern. How the canoe interacts with the water from the cutwater at the bow to the exit at the stern will dictate the efficiency of the vessel. The sides of a canoe are another example; they do not come up straight to the top of the gunwales, but flare outwards in a graceful arc, which helps keep water from spilling over them. The flat bar of the chain saw has influenced some contemporary carvers to straighten out lines that were previously curved, but it is the responsibility of the artist to guide the tools rather than letting the tools dictate to him or her. Elbow adzes and D-adzes are still the main tools in canoe construction.

Some things have changed of necessity. Historically, the top and bottom of a canoe were determined by floating a log in the water. The dense portion, being heavier, would naturally roll to the underside, becoming the bottom of the canoe. Today we often get our cedar from logging companies; it sits in a booming yard, the top drying in the sun, making the age-old test invalid. Though we work more quickly with today's tools, we also have much less time. The old-timers built their canoes over two seasons, and there was always community help. We work to deadlines today, and fund-raising is often required. But the essential aspects of canoe building remain as they have always been.

The rebirth of the canoe is catching for those of us who get close to it. At the closing ceremonies of Tribal Journeys, in the Mungo Martin bighouse in Victoria, I formally accepted the challenge to participate in the La push paddle in 1997. With the support of my family, I will make the journey in my own canoe.

I began my canoe for traditional use by my family, and I conceived it as a project I would undertake on my own. I felt that if my ancestor, Charlie James, could carve sixty-foot totem poles with only one good hand, I could manage a twenty-five-foot canoe. In addition, one of my elders advised me that fund-raising and money worries detract from the spiritual aspects of building a canoe. I decided to go ahead, after much soul-searching, because I feel it is important to pursue your dreams. This idealism was to cause me much mental anguish as the time carne to begin carving and the project seemed overwhelming.

The first step was to secure an old-growth Western red cedar. This was done with the generosity of the Ehattesaht First Nation and of MacMillan Bloedel, who donated a log. I journeyed to Elk River, where I had my pick of the logs in the booming ground. The folks there suggested a beautiful thirty-four-foot cedar, which was an appropriate size for my canoe. But I had my eye on an incredible forty-one-foot log that was over six feet in diameter at the butt end and probably twelve hundred years old. It was such a grand old tree: there is truly something magical about a tree that has lived that long on our earth. But as I awaited its delivery to my carving site Campbell River and continued to discuss the project with other carvers, I began to realize that, with the larger log, I would end up with a huge amount of wood to remove. And by cutting away this exterior wood I would be establishing the sides of the canoe deeper in the tree, where there would be branches and knots. So I decided on the smaller tree after all. On a sunny July day it was delivered to my site overlooking Discovery Passage on northern Vancouver Island.

With the help of Chief Russell Quocksistalis and Andrew (Wouldhe) Tait, I arranged a blessing ceremony to prepare the log for the transformation into a traditional ocean-going craft. The log was smudged and the ashes later deposited in the river. Under the cover of the Foreshore Bighouse, a song was sung and I danced a K'sala, the wind and rain howling from the southeast. Chief Quocksistalis told of the meaning of what we were doing, and who my family was that I came to be carving this canoe. My father, David Neel Sr., was a carver who had been trained by his mother, Ellen Neel, and her uncle Mungo Martin. Ellen was one of the first woman carvers on the coast, I am told; carving is historically passed down from father to son, and Ellen was one of the first women to break the pattern, under the training of her grandfather Charlie James, the great master. Once the ceremony was over, I was free to begin my formidable task.

A five-hundred-year-old cedar, measuring thirty-four feet by three feet, looks like a lot of project to jump into as it sits on the ground before you. Fortunately my friend Mervyn Child, from my home village of Fort Rupert, had done two canoes, and he helped me saw off the big wood, revealing the form of a canoe within. With the two of us manning the saw and two others helping out, we had it shaped like a canoe in two days. Milling the wood from this grandfather log required a chain saw with a six-foot bar, with Mervyn at one end and me at the other. One thing that anyone will notice in working with cedar is the wonderful aroma of the wood. Cedar contains thujaplicin, a natural oil that is an excellent preservative, one of the reasons the wood is so well suited to totem poles, bighouses and canoes. The slowed down considerably after this roughing-out stage, and I was on my own.

Before I began working I had interviewed approximately fifty people involved with building or using canoes, visited museums and studied many canoes in the water, but I was to find that the process of sculpting a canoe can only be understood by doing it. Once wood is removed, it cannot be replaced. To avoid errors and make the best use of the log, careful planning and visualization are necessary. Mervyn's favourite axiom, "Measure twice, cut once," proved invaluable. The carver needs to be thinking about what his or her canoe will look like after each Step, as well as having an image of the final product. Steaming changes the lines dramatically. This makes it all the more difficult to project the shape of the finished craft.

The actual building of the canoe was a lot more labour than I had ever anticipated. I completed a plan of the top and side views, which gave me a guide to follow. But I found that once I had made my initial cuts and the major wood was removed, I preferred to use my own vision and intuition, looking at photographs and measurements taken from old canoes. The process became one more of sculpting than construction. As the wood came away, the many bits of advice and pointers from the people I had interviewed echoed in my ears.

Under the steady fall of my elbow adze my canoe took shape, straight saw cuts becoming flowing curves. The goal is to have each curve, each angle, flow into the next, into an overall form that has no beginning and no end but is simply a series of sophisticated sweeps with its roots in the past. Achieving these old-world sculptural ideals while dealing with the contemporary realities of family, economic and personal demands proved difficult. I was to realize that the biggest challenge in sculpting my canoe was simply finding the time to do it. As the summer Sun faded into the fall breeze, I became more anxious. I fully realized that my ability, and my eagerness, to work on the dugout would wane as the cold and wet settled in. Trips to Santa Fe, Vancouver and New York were interspersed with periods of creative labour, but slowly the age-old design took form. I would take pleasure in standing back and looking at the canoe to see how its lines flowed, imagining it a foot higher once the pieces had been added to the bow and stern. I it dramatic lines, befitting a larger craft, but that is the way I saw it in my mind's eve.

A canoe, through all the phases of its life, from construction to travel, brings people together. My carving site, in a public park, became a spot for both locals and tourists to visit. It was not unusual for visitors from England, Japan and Germany to stop by during the course of an afternoon's work. At one point a weary traveller even brought in bedding and proceeded to live under my canoe. I decided to allow him to share in the canoe experience, and he stayed for about two weeks, until I flipped the canoe over.

When the work was finally complete and I ran my eves over the sleek form of the family canoe. I experienced a peace inside. I could feel the energy, the knowledge and the responsibility of the carvers who came before me. I laid my hands on the gunwales, I could tell that something very important was coming back to me, my family and my people.

Like Haida artist Bill Reid, I believe the traditional canoe to be the basis for Northwest Coast design and sculptural principles. The canoe's form, the way each line and interacts, follows the same principles as those employed when carving a mask or painting a house front. The Canoe is very sophisticated in its construction and function, slicing cleanly through waves, its high stern pushing it along in a following sea. In spirit it is kinetic sculpture: art designed to navigate the sea under the pull of the paddle. Contained within the canoe is the essence of our art form, as 'sell as the combined knowledge of our old people, transported into this period of our history for us to breathe life into once again. To paddle a dugout is to be affected by it. The canoe retains a spirit once encased in a living body hundreds of years Old. The teaching Says that the people Of the Northwest Pacific Coast, are people of the cedar. Along with the salmon, the cedar is the basis for our traditional culture. It is as though this sacred vessel has been sent by our ancestors to guide us into an uncertain future.

Only five or ten years ago the canoe, like many of our traditions, seemed destined to be a part of our rich past. Today its continuation is assured. Physically it is the same vessel, but its function has evolved. It returns to us carrying the knowledge and pride of our ancestors. We continue to carve canoes, as we always have, from the red cedar. Many of the trees that supply us with our canoes were already hundreds of years old when the first tall ships came to our shores. In their lifetimes these trees have seen a new people settle upon the land, seen our Native populations diminish, seen the canoe become a memory, and then be reborn again in a modern world. With contemporary forest practices, will our grandchildren have old-growth cedar to continue our traditions? And what role will these wise giants play in a world of global economies, television and space travel? How will we nourish in our youth the respect that we feel, having seen the great canoe return to our people?

The heroes of many of our stories go into the forest, or to the depths of the ocean, to find upon their return that they have been away not days but years. Like our canoes, they return transformed, with great gifts to share with the people. I am told all the knowledge to building a canoe is within the tree itself. Perhaps some of the answers for our people are held within the canoe, or the journey of the canoe. Where the journey will take us we cannot yet see. But like a trusted horse that guides its rider in times of difficulty, the canoe will continue to guide us. In a world of mortgages and deadlines it can be difficult to have faith in spiritual and cultural values. For myself, and for many others on the journey, the Canoe is an important physical symbol for the relevance of the ways of our ancestors. Our families and our nations have left us many gifts that can benefit us even today, but reaping these benefits requires great effort. Will the canoe tradition be alive and flourishing in ten years' time? Will our children understand its importance and practise our traditions so that our grandchildren will have them? These are important questions to ask as you read through the words of the people of the great canoes.