Some Northwest Native Americans believe a canoe is like an umbilical cord that connects to the outside world. With the assistance of a Haida elder, volunteers can connect with the world and each other by helping to carve Native canoes.
In late October, United Indians for All Tribes Foundation, Antioch University and the Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) announced The Canoe Project, a joint effort to bring people together to carve canoes from two cedar logs. “A lot of people are on fire to do this work,” said Saaduuts, a Haida man and artist-in-residence at CWB, who will lead the carving.
Saaduuts, who goes by one name, said that carving a canoe is a communal experience. People who want to participate can contact the CWB for more information. The logs are in Westlake Park, across the street from Courtyard Marriott Seattle, located at 925 Westlake North. To protect the wood, the logs will be placed under a portable pavilion.
One log stretches 20 feet and has a three-foot diameter, while the second reaches 18 feet with a diameter of approximately 2.5 feet. Saaduuts said the carving process involves the use of axes, adzes, sledgehammers and wedges. Carvers also use various saws including a crosscut saw, a long saw with handles at either end that resembles those seen in archival photographs of lumberjacks.
The two logs come from one tree, which stood in a churchyard in Bellevue until the summer of 2011. Sister Julie Codd, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, said when the Bellevue church planned a building expansion, church leaders were forced to cut down seven cedar trees. Through connections with Chief Seattle Club, a day center for homeless urban Natives in Seattle, she said she understood the cultural importance of cedar to many Northwest Native tribes. “And cedar logs are expensive,” Codd said.
The nuns donated the cut trees. Most of the stripped trees now lay in a churchyard on Capitol Hill, but one was sawed into two pieces. A Haida elder blessed the tree cutting to prepare the logs for carving.
Antioch faculty member Cynthia Updegrave said that to Northwest tribes, a canoe is sacred. The land where the canoe carving takes place used to be a tribal trading ground. She said the project represents an opportunity to give back something tangible to Natives in the region. “Talking with Saaduuts,” she said, “we saw this was the man who could teach us the power of the gift.”
During his 10 years as artist-in-residence at CWB, Saaduuts has helped lead hundreds of people in the carving of five other canoes. Some of those carvers were elementary school students, who learned to use saws in the canoes’ construction. In the past, he’s let young people take home chips of wood upon which they write their dreams.
Project coordinators had planned for the carving to take 18 months, but Saaduuts said the canoes may be complete within a year. Already, he said, one of the canoes is taking shape. Once the canoes are carved and in their final stages, he said they will be filled with salt water for several days. Then the hulls will be stretched, a process made easier by covering the canoe and heating the damp wood with a fire full of volcanic rocks.
But the carving process involves more than tools, saltwater and heat. Saaduuts said that when people work on a canoe, they learn to speak to the wood, to engage it in a positive manner to rid the vessel of bad spirits.
Humility also plays a part in the experience; carvers learn that approaching the logs with reverence helps induce spiritual transformation. The gift of the canoe, he said, is it helps people forge a deeper connection with others and the world at large.
“I really do believe that, in my heart,” Saaduuts said. “Without [the deeper connection], the people, we’re suffering.”