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Century-old canoe being restored

Posted: Thursday, November 09, 2000

An unadorned pea pod canoe going on exhibit this evening at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum will help to reveal part of Juneau's past.

Working by eye, using an ax, a curved knife and a steel-bladed adze as well as fire and hot water, the unknown dugout maker pared a single old-growth log down to an even inch of thickness, leaving the bottom an inch-and-a-half. A crack near one end was repaired with three neat stitches of spruce root. A shipwright from a later generation repaired the same crack with galvanized nails.

The weathered, gray Tlingit dugout was fashioned about 1900. It was restored this week by Steve Brown, an artist and author who specializes in Pacific Northwest Coast Native artifacts. Brown, formerly associate curator for North American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, retired in March and now works as an independent consultant.

"I work on exhibition ideas and artifact restoration. I also advise collectors looking for historical documentation for things in their collections," Brown said. He assisted Nathan Jackson in 1980-81 in the carving of the Wooshkeetaan and Auk Tribe totem poles that stand outside Centennial Hall.

Dugouts of this vintage are "extremely rare," Brown said. He knows of a mere handful in Alaska today: one about 35 feet in Skagway; one about 18 feet in Wrangell; and a 14-foot Northern style canoe (carved in 1990) and remnants of two older canoes at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan. A 13 foot, 11.5 inch-dugout in the state museum's collection was created in 1937 by Hydaburg carver John Wallace.

If Brown knew what kind of wood the dugout is, he could pinpoint its origins more precisely. But a century has robbed it of perfume. "If it's cedar, it could have come from further south, like Prince of Wales. If spruce, it could have been made in the Juneau area," he said.

The canoe had two jagged holes the size of a margarine tub cover at one end. It was also missing a protective molding atop its gunwale. Brown employed stainless steel pins, Elmer's Glue, clamps and straps to return the canoe to its original shape and stabilize it.

"We are not compromising the original appearance," he said.

The marks of steel blades help to date the canoe, he said, estimating steel blades have been common in Southeast Alaska since the 1780s. "Japanese shipwrecks and trade across the Bering Strait are possibilities for where (Native artisans) got steel blades," he said.

The 16 1/2-foot dugout appears to be a "simplification of a spruce canoe," a standard Tlingit design called seet yakw. "It is pretty typical of a double-end design" used for halibut or salmon fishing. It was designed for "general food gathering and light travel in protected waters," Brown said. It could have been launched in Gastineau Channel on calm days or on rivers such as the Taku, he said.

The dugout was probably paddled by three people. It is quite a different vessel from the Tlingit war canoe that carried 15 or more paddlers, and whose decoratively carved prow soared into the air like a Viking longboat. War canoes ranged from 30 to 50 feet in length.

The canoe was purchased about six years ago from the estate of Juneau resident Ferrall Campbell, said city museum curator Mary Pat Wyatt.

Judy Campbell, daughter-in-law of the late Ferrall, said, "He was a long-time collector; if he found something, he would bring it home." Ferrall collected items from mining tools to Tlingit baskets, she said. "We always loved the canoe, and it tore at us to see it on our deck for years. We were happy for it go to the museum."

The canoe has not been shown before because of its fragile condition. And it's been tough finding display space for it, Wyatt said.

The canoe may be viewed this evening at 6:30 at an open house. A lecture by Brown on Northwest Coast canoes follows at 7.

The restored canoe will be the centerpiece of an exhibit now in the planning for early spring 2001 interpreting the subsistence way of life and waterways of local Tlingits, Wyatt said.

"We are at the very preliminary stages for planning" that exhibit, Wyatt said.



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