Thoughts on Tlingit Canoes and Old-Growth Trees

Protecting old-growth forest is no longer a revolutionary idea. As we continue to discover ways that old-growth habitat are critical to salmon, birds, Sitka deer and numerous other species, people are making the connection between protecting these areas and the wildlife that we depend on. Leaving old-growth habitat intact is a no-brainer forSoutheast Alaskans whodepend on the forest as the place where theyforage, hunt and fish. But we can't ignore the fact that we use woodon a daily basis. Can these needs coexist?

One way that the Sitka Conservation Society is exploring this question is by looking at ways that Southeast Alaskans have selectively and sustainably harvested old growth trees throughout time. Immediately, we turn to the ways that Tlingit Alaska Native peoples have harvested the trees. In contrast to the ways that the forests were used in the 20thcentury when they were liquidated and exported ascommodities, Alaska Natives used craftsmanship to carve useful and meaningful objectsthat were often imbued with their values and ideals. And they did it whileunderstanding andmaintaining the character and quality of the tree.

Take for instance Tlingit canoes. While their southern neighbors, the Haida, are more well-known for their highly prized red cedar canoes, over centuries, the Yakutat Tlingit developed ways to carve spruce into a variety of forms, each serving a different purpose. There was a forked bow canoe for otter hunting, a village canoe, which held 18 to 20 people, and even a two person seal-hunting canoe, which they covered in white cloth to disguise it as a floating iceberg. Their canoes could survive coming ashore on rocky surf or scraping the bottom of a shallow river. They paddled in streams, rivers, estuaries and the open waters of southeast Alaska.

Drawing from Frederica De Laguna's "Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit" Part 1. Page 333.

Equally as masterful was the way the Yakutat Tlingit steered their canoes through unexpected terrain. Lieutenant Frederick Gustavus Schwatk agreed. He wrote prolifically about traveling throughout the Tongass.After being welcomed on a canoe, he described how the Yakutat people delicately maneuvered a large canoe across a dam. In a 1886 New York Times article, he wrote "… . I never knew a canoe would stand so much.." After being carved, the Tlingit took great care of their canoes, covering them with damp clothes and lathering them with seal oil.

Untilthe early 20thcentury when Alaska Natives turned to skiffs with on-board motors for hunting and fishing, canoes made from old-growth wood were critical to the Tlingit lifestyle in southeast. And with the Alaskan coastline being longer than any of the other states' combined, paddling is and always has been one of the most intimate ways to navigate our unpredictable waters.With craftsmanship, care and respect of the old- growth dug-out, the Tlingit perfected the art of floating through Southeast.

Keep an eye out as we explore the way that canoe-building in southeast demonstrates a sustainable use of our crucial old-growth trees.


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