JUNEAU, Alaska — Thirteen years ago, master carver Wayne Price of Haines had a vision in a sweat lodge.
“The Creator told me to create a healing dugout and a healing totem,” he said. He gestured to the wood chips piled at least two feet deep around the 40-foot dugout in Hoonah. “This one has been dedicated — it’s a healing dugout for Hoonah.”
It’s also a way for the Huna Tlingit to make their ceremonial return to Glacier Bay, and it’s the beginning of a movement the carvers and the people supporting the project hope will continue in Hoonah and other communities in the years to come.
As of mid-March, Wayne Price had been working on the project for the last 15 weeks with his son, Steven Price, as well as carvers — and cousins — Zack James (Tlél Tooch Tláa.aa) and James Hart (Gooch Éesh). All the apprentices, who work 10 hours a day, seven days a week, are volunteers, something James said is possible because of the support of the people of Hoonah.
“There is nothing but support from the community,” he said. “We don’t get paid, but what we’re doing feels pretty good.”
Hart echoed that sentiment, as did Price, who left his job in New Mexico to come work on the canoes.
“It was enjoyable to get a paycheck, but this is a lot more fulfilling,” Hart said.
People bring them herring eggs and salmon, and sometimes they’re invited to community meals. Just in the few hours the Capital City Weekly was in Hoonah, someone dropped off a box of food.
One of the requirements Wayne Price has for those working on the canoe is that they live a clean lifestyle, with no beer or any other mind-altering substances.
Hart said the experience of working on the canoe is “life-changing.”
“It’s challenged me physically and mentally,” he said. “It’s really helped in pretty much all directions in my life, since I’ve been here.”
It’s also helped him become more immersed in Tlingit culture, he said. He’s working with language teacher Heather Powell to learn more of the language.
James said it’s been very impactful to see the process from start to finish.
“The first line that gets drawn affects the whole thing,” James said. “Basically, you have to see where the dugout is inside the log.”
“It’s really interesting to see how much mathematics there is in this,” he added. “With stone tools and very crude measurement devices — sticks and string — they (our ancestors) were able to do much more than we are now. It’s amazing to see how much precision was in their work. It’s proof of their mastery of the form that they could make a 40-foot (or) 50-foot sculpture and have it be completely parallel on both sides. And their knowledge of wood, their ability to shape it — it’s a testament to the greatness of Tlingit culture. People see that and they’re really proud of what it is and what we’re doing.”
Price said the 40-foot canoes are the largest he’s ever carved. The log weighed 43,500 pounds when they started. It’ll be carved down to about one-twentieth of that. The length of the canoe is studded with more than 400 one-inch pegs; the carvers are now scraping the log down until they reach those pegs. It’ll soon be ready to be steamed open, at which time it will expand significantly.
Each dugout will require about 15 paddlers, Price said, as well as backups.
“People are really stepping up to meet that demand,” he said.
One of the ways they’re stepping up is by carving. Price would like each person who paddles the boat to carve their own paddle. The carvers have been holding classes, with many people in the community attending. Two groups of high schoolers have also been carving paddles, with Steven Price leading the lessons.
Hoonah elder Melvin Williams, 74, comes down every day to carve paddles, talk to the carvers and tell stories.
His father, David Williams Sr., was a carver. “His work took him to London, to New York — it took him everywhere,” Williams said.
It had been a long time since he’d seen an artist like that in Hoonah, Williams said.
“And then Wayne came down. He is an artist,” Williams said.
Williams is carving paddles in case people want to make the trip but don’t have one of their own. Right now, he’s on his fourth.
Huna Indian Association is funding the carving of the two 40-foot canoes with the help of federal highway funds.
“We recognized the traditional transportation mode of the Tlingit ... was becoming a lost art,” said Huna Indian Association tribal administrator and CEO Bob Starbard.
Hoonah carvers like Jeff Skaflestad are participating when they’re able, he said.
They also plan — and have the log for — a 33-foot veterans’ canoe, which will be carved and used only by Hoonah’s many veterans. Ultimately, Starbard said, they’d like to make an even larger, ocean-going canoe, some of which were more than 60 feet long.
One of the reasons HIA wanted Price to be the one behind the canoes is because of his approach to wellness, Starbard said. In recent years, two police officers were killed in Hoonah; the community also disagreed strongly about the location of a planned cruise ship dock, now 99 percent complete at Icy Strait Point, which is owned by Huna Totem Corp.
“We wanted to use this canoe process of bringing healing back to the entire community,” Starbard said.
It’s the third healing canoe Price has created.
“Each chip that comes off this dugout represents a life we (indigenous people) have lost to drugs,” he said. “As people come by and they hear the story ... they put the name on a chip.”
The canoe is also meant to help heal other kinds of trauma such as sexual abuse or loss of culture.
Those chips are piled high inside a beautifully carved bowl made from the burl of a tree.
When they steam the canoe open, they will also conduct a ceremony and burn every last wood chip, Price said.
Traditionally, each village had between 40 and 60 dugouts, Price said.
The carvers hope every Tlingit community can begin making steps in that direction.
“I’d like to see a traditional-style dugout in every village and community,” Hart said.
“Just being in Jibba (the canoe Wayne Price brought to Hoonah) and doing the different activities that we’ve done — it’s led me here, led me to my culture, led me to a healthier lifestyle. ... I’m excited to see where it could take us. I’m on board.”
One of those activities was going out hunting. Steven Price harvested a seal, the first brought back to Hoonah in a dugout canoe in more than a century, Wayne Price said.
Huna Tlingit will be paddling the canoes from Hoonah to Glacier Bay for the tribal house dedication ceremony Aug. 25, which is also the 100th anniversary — to the day — of the National Park Service.
“I’m building the ships to take my people home,” Price said.