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Foresters find historic canoe on Prince of Wales Island

Partially-complete artifact could become model for modern craftsmen

Posted: July 12, 2011 - 8:53pm  |  Updated: July 12, 2011 - 9:07pm
Provided by Sealaska
Sealaska’s Roy Williams, left, talks with an Organized Village of Kasaan employee, center, and Sealaska Timber Corp. contractor Bob Girt at the site of the ancient canoe found on Prince of Wales Island. Behind the canoe is Fred (Stormy) Olsen, also a Kasaan employee.

Sealaska foresters working on Prince of Wales Island have unearthed a partially complete Haida canoe from the forest floor, and are estimating its age at more than 100 years old.

A Sealaska Timber Corp. surveyor working in the area during the winter discovered the canoe. Later, when snow melted, it was confirmed to be an ancient canoe, the company said.

Several cedar trees in the area appear to have been felled with traditional tools, and the canoe was constructed with traditional tools, said Sealaska Heritage Institute officials.

It was likely created before the modern Organized Village of Kasaan was founded nearby, said Rosita Worl, the institute’s president.

“The Sealaska Board of Directors views this Haida canoe as a tangible tie to Haida ancestors, who made this canoe and who left their footprints on the land,” said Clarence Jackson, a Sealaska board member and chairman of the institute’s Council of Traditional Scholars.

Worl said by the time present-day Kasaan was founded in 1900, its residents had commercial tools available. While the canoe pre-dates the newer Kasaan village, the area was traditional Haida territory and other villages were in the area.

The cedar forest around the nearly 34-foot canoe is around 500 years old, said Sealaska Timber Corp. President and CEO Wade Zammit.

University of Alaska Southeast anthropology professor Daniel Monteith surveyed the site for Sealaska, and found evidence that traditional tools, not modern saws, had been used to cut the trees and hollow the canoe.

The carving of the canoe was nearly complete, but it had not yet been steamed, a process used to give the craft its final shape, they said.

Another cedar log that had split when harvested was also at the site, and some of its wood appears to have been salvaged for other uses, Sealaska said.

Worl said the Organized Village of Kasaan will decide what to do with the canoe, but for now Sealaska is keeping the site private and secure.

Worl said she hopes the canoe can be replicated so modern Haida canoe-makers can study its pre-commercial techniques, and that the site could possibly become an educational forum for future carvers.

“The canoe symbolically unites past, present and future,” she said.

“We are taught to honor our ancestors by ensuring that their knowledge is taught to future generations.”

Sealaska is also using the canoe discovery to advocate for the land legislation that it now has before Congress.

“We believe sites like this one will be better protected and preserved under Alaska Native ownership,” Worl said.

Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris said he was proud Sealaska Timber Corp.’s field personnel, who are trained to recognize potential cultural resources, spotted and saved the canoe.

“They are instructed to immediately secure the area, stop any activities that may negatively affect the cultural resource, and contact Sealaska Heritage Institute, which oversees these matters,” Harris said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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