Making Yuxwch’ee Yakw, a Tlingit Spruce Canoe

Working on Yuxwch’ee Yakw, the Spruce Canoe. Source: Sealaska Picasa page.

Most people are familiar with the use of red cedar to make dugout canoes on the Northwest Coast.  It is not as commonly known that Sitka spruce was also used for this purpose, especially on the northernmost coast where red cedar did not thrive or was absent completely.

Via the Sealaska Heritage Institute Special Collections blog, I just found a nice, extensive photo set from 1987 of the carving of a spruce canoe near Hoonah, a Tlingit village in Southeast Alaska.  The introduction to the photo set reads:

As part of the bicentennial of the Constitution celebration of 1987, the National Park Service and the Sealaska Heritage Foundation (now Sealaska Heritage Institute) sponsored the carving of a Tlingit canoe using traditional tools and methods at Bartlett Cove, which is near Hoonah, Alaska. The canoe, called Yuxwch’ee Yakw in Tlingit, means Sea Otter Canoe, which was the indigenous canoe of Hoonah and was photographed by the Harriman Expedition in Glacier Bay in 1899. The canoe was constructed at Bartlett Cover in August 1987. George Dalton, Sr, born in Hoonah in 1879, and other elders with personal knowledge of canoe making traditions served as cultural advisors to the project. Lead carvers Nathan Jackson, Steve Brown, Richard Dalton, and Mick Beasley carved the canoe using a Sitka Spruce log using traditional tools, such as the xot’ah or Tlingit adze.

Covering the canoe after hot rocks have been placed inside to steam it prior to spreading to final shape. Source: Sealaska Picasa page.

I was also interested to see Bill Holm wielding an adze – his lovely reconstructive paintings of Tlingit life were discussed in a previous post.

What is particularly interesting to me about the use of Sitka spruce is that on, say Haida Gwaii, there was little to no climax red cedar until about 3,000 years ago: forests were dominated by Spruce and Hemlock between about 11,000 and 3,000 calendar years ago. Elsewhere, cedar reaches climax levels between about 6,000 years ago in the south to the northern panhandle where it never really is established.   Yet, at the Haida Kilgii Gwaay site dating to about 10,700 years ago, a number of tools were found only consistent with splitting planks and other major woodworking projects normally tied to red cedar.  While skin boats were certainly possible, it seems to me that spruce dugouts may also have a very long history on the Northwest Coast.

Prow of the partially finished Sitka spruce canoe. Source: Sealaska Picasa page.

5 responses to “Making Yuxwch’ee Yakw, a Tlingit Spruce Canoe

  1. Thank you for interest in our photograph collections and other collections. We are always very interested in having people research our collections. We have an archival collections database, and our cultural objects are also included therein. For more information about us and our holdings see http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/collection/index.htm. And let me state again, we want people to research our collections.

    As for your post on the canoe project, yes, we engage in those type of projects regularly. We just facilitated the carving and raising of a totem on the U of Alaska Southeast campus and a canoe that was sent to the Smithsonian. Images showing carvers at work on the UAS totem can be viewed via http://picasaweb.google.com/kathydye2/EagleTotemProjectAtUAS#.

    The old photos from the 1987 project do indeed provide some insight into caring and our work. Selections from our other photograph collections can be viewed via http://picasaweb.google.com/SHI.SCRC, but this is only about 1,000 out of 35,000–though the 1,000 shown are some of our better images.

    Anyhow, thanks again for your interest and please let me know if you ever have any additional questions.

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    • Hi Zach,

      Thanks for those great links and more generally for the good work with SHI. I’ll definitely keep it in mind when I have students looking for projects. Cross-border issues might arise, but it is one of the not-so-stealth agendas here to get people talking across the borders which have artificially sliced the NW Coast up like a cheap baguette in a room full of hungry hippies.

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  2. At the big wetsite I found at Chugash Bay, Alaska during Exxon-Valdez cleanup work in 1990, there were a number of classic ‘Northwest Coast’ splitting wedges, identical to those found in wet sites on our coast. compression wood (probably)spruce (probably), fire-hardened tips, and spruce root (probably) cordage grommets. These could have been used in the manufacture of spruce canoes, amongst myriad other uses. The crossover between NWC, Athapaskan, and Pacific Eskimo technology and culture there was absolutely fascinating.

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  3. Scratch Chugash Bay, thats at Kenai; I can’t remember the name now, I think it was on Chenega Island

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  4. Pingback: Haida Canoe Unfinished « burnt embers

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