In today’s Tongass National forest, healthy ecosystems have coincided with sustainable human use for thousands of years. The natural environment of Southeast Alaska offers a banquet of fish, crustaceans, mammals and edible plants, which has always satisfied and sustained the people living here. Accessing this bounty requires an intimate knowledge of the landscape and an understanding of the hidden lifecycles of its edible inhabitants. Equally, and no less importantly, it has always required a boat. For thousands of years, Tlingit and Haida people depended upon the canoe as the sole means to access the bounty of Southeast Alaska. They would paddle in canoes to summer fishing camps, and return home with their canoes full of salmon, halibut and deer to store for the winter. Carefully crafted canoes carried Haida and Tlingit people to well-springs of sustenance year after year; they are a vessel which has defined human use of the Alexander Archipelago from the beginning.
Today, within the native community, there is a reemergence of canoe culture. Dug-out and strip-bark canoe-building projects are underway in communities throughout Southeast Alaska. Equally, more and more people have been participating in canoe journeys, travelling through the waters of the Tongass National Forest to Tlingit and Haida gatherings. People participating in this movement see the canoe journeys and canoe- building projects as an immensely powerful tool to reconnect Tlingit and Haida people with the culture, using them as a way to boost mental health and build stronger communities. To grasp why this canoe movement has been so successful, it is important to understand the centrality of the canoe to the historic lifestyle and identity of Tlingit and Haida people in Southeast Alaska, and how the canoe connected them with the landscape and the natural systems that they continue to depend on and be stewards for.
According to legend, the canoe may have even come with the first people when they migrated to what is now Southeast Alaska and since then, defined the way the people here interacted with the landscape. Anthropologist Frederica de Laguna described their voyage and the heavy load on the Tlingit canoes after fishing: “They came and went through the dangerous entrance to the bay, transporting not simply the members of the household but their stores of dry fish, household effects and even the planks which formed the summer shelter.” Dug-out canoes were used for war, for hunting and for transporting whole clans (up to sixty people sometimes) to fishing camps during the summer. Other dug-outs held only seal and otter hunters, who travelled in pairs. In glacial fjords, seal hunters wore all white and widened the canoe with false sides in order to disguise themselves as icebergs. The man in the back paddled and the other up front, aimed.
While much was done to preserve the canoes, slathering them in seal oil and covering them with damp skins to stop them from drying out, they inevitably decomposed. One account from 1884 says that they would last for only three years before they cracked. Hence canoe-building was as constant a practice as the paddling of canoes. Even so, much is unknown about the ways that the dug-outs were carved throughout the centuries. The few written accounts say carvers looked for large trees grown in dry soil because trees grown in wet soil were spongy. They would fell the tree in November or March “when the sap was down.” The canoe maker would often camp on the working ground, near the shore where he could more easily skid the finished dugout to shore. Before the acquisition of iron, carvers would fell the tree using a combination of stone adz, wedges and fire.
Once on the ground, accounts say that it was cut in half, turned with the flat bit on the ground, and carved out with an adz. “In order to gauge how thin to adz the sides of the canoe,” the anthropologist De Laguna wrote, “the carpenter would drill a series of holes through the half-finished walls and drive in pegs of the proper length. He would then adz down the walls from the inside until he came to the ends of the pegs.” Water was boiled inside the canoe using hot rocks in order to spread the canoe, and then thwarts were inserted. Then the inside was oiled with hot seal oil. Tlingit people generally carved from sitka spruce, while the Haida were best known for crafting their canoe from the red cedar.
The canoe helped the Haida and Tlingit to successfully and sustainably fish salmon, halibut and herring runs for thousands of years. For those people who live in Southeast Alaska today, both native and non-native, this relationship with the waterways and the boat is not far from our own experience. We continue to depend and live in rhythm with wild stocks of fish, just as the first people of this area have for generations. Yet while today’s soundtrack is the growl of the motor, the first alaskans were accompanied by their songs and the pop of paddles, dipping in tandem into water.