Smithsonian Bound

Posted: Thursday, May 01, 2008

The copper sun embedded in the mouth of the raven carved into the canoe's prow glistened Wednesday as the paddles from nine men rhythmically sliced through the water of Twin Lakes.

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Photo Courtsy Of James Di Loreto
Photo Courtsy Of James Di Loreto

Observing from the dock on the lake's edge, lead artist Doug Chilton noted that many of the men testing the unnamed 26-foot canoe bound for the Smithsonian Museum had never paddled before.

"You naturally fall into that unity," he said as he watched them swiftly glide across the lake in the red-and-black-painted canoe.

Chilton, a Tlingit of the Raven moiety from the Deisheetaan Clan, and other Alaska Native artists spent nearly 10 months carving and finishing the canoe at the Sealaska Plaza downtown.

"We had quite a few people come in and work on it, but I have no idea how many man hours it took," Chilton said.

Sealaska Corp. donated the red cedar tree used for the canoe, which is bound for Washington, D.C., sometime this month. The canoe will be part of the permanent display in Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The hall exhibition is scheduled to open in September.

"Creating a canoe is usually a larger carving project," he said, adding that cooperation strengthens the bonds between carvers. "It builds unity."

Chilton said the "Raven Stealing the Sun" story is depicted on the canoe because it is a neutral design among traditional Tlingit moieties.

A naming ceremony is scheduled for June 19 at the museum, and Sealaska Heritage Institute has said it would like to see the canoe paddled up the Potomac River before it is permanently displayed in the exhibit that celebrates global oceans.

Kevin Skeek, a Tlingit of the Eagle moiety from the Chookaneidi Clan, said he had never paddled in a traditionally designed canoe before Wednesday afternoon.

"As soon as you accept the feeling of it - it all ballasted out - you just trust it," he said.

It was amazing how many full-grown men were comfortably transported across the lake, Skeek said.

"I was surprised how many people it could hold," he said.

Skeek, who works for Sealaska, said he watched over the last 10 months as the canoe took shape from the red cedar log into a finished product. Canoes have long-standing historical and cultural importance for the Tlingit people, he said.

As he was paddling across Twin Lakes, Skeek said he thought about the cultural significance of the project.

"I realized where this was going to go, where it's going to end up, and in a sense I'm a part of it," he said.

Chilton said there are many aspects of the project that he has enjoyed, from the carving of it to paddling it around the lake Wednesday.

"There's so much about it, not just creating a canoe," he said. "I'm very passionate about canoeing."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrisonat 523-2269 or e-mail


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