Drummers lead the procession to Rotary Peace Park during the boat launch ceremony on Thursday. Four traditional boats were built - a birch bark canoe, spruce dugout canoe, moose skin boat and a skin qayaq. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News)

Traditional watercraft take to Yukon River

‘Our ancestor’s stories are going to be our stories now. We’re going to make legends’

Seven weeks ago, Wayne Price stood at the foot of a 22-foot Sitka spruce tree near Haines, Alaska. Today, it is a beautiful black and red traditional dugout canoe ready for its inaugural voyage on the Yukon river.

This is the 11th dugout canoe Price — a Tlingit boat builder who carved his first canoe in 1982— has worked on. He and his team worked 12 to 14 hours a day using hand tools and traditional elbow adzes to carve the boat.

“There is nothing easy about a dugout,” he said.

The halfway mark of this extensive process is the steaming of the canoe, which entails partially filling it with water, dropping hot rocks into it and covering the canoe over with a tarp. The heat builds inside, making the wood more pliant, which allows the carvers to expland and alter its shape. This process is repeated several times in a day. This canoe was steamed twice.

After more shaping, carving and painting, the dugout canoe is finally ready for its big day.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work and preparation for one afternoon,” Price said.

The spruce dugout canoe is just one of the traditional boats to be a part of the Dań Kwanje ‘Á-Nààn: Voices Across The Water project, which showcases the traditional watercraft of the Indigenous peoples of the North. The project was part of the Adäka Cultural Festival that ran June 30 to July 6, culminating with the launch of the four boats.

The spruce dugout canoe is joined by a seal skin qayaq, a birch bark canoe, a moose skin boat, a log raft and another dugout canoe adorned with Maori regalia. The moose skin boat and the spruce dugout canoe are Tlingit, the seal skin qayaq is Inuvialuktun, and the birch bark canoe is Northern Tutchone. Each boat is unique in its function, depending on the needs of the Indigenous peoples from different areas. For example, the seal skin qayaq is ideal for the frigid cold waters of the Arctic, said Kiliii Yüyan, a descendent of the Nanai people of northern Siberia and Han Chinese.

Warm water soaks up faster than cold water, he said, making the qayaqs less efficent in warmer areas like southern Yukon.

“It’s not really meant to be used outside the Arctic,” he said.

Yüyan has been building traditional qayaqs and umiaqs — a qayaq’s bigger brother — for the last 20 years. When he first started there was almost no information available. Qayaqs stopped being used everywhere outside of Greenland in the 1930s and elders who built them were more or less gone.

“So, I started building from books and anthropological accounts and then I started asking elders. Nobody knew a whole lot but everybody knew little bits and pieces about the qayaq making process,” he said.

He put the bits and pieces together and has now built over 600 qayaqs.

“Normally, building a qayaq like this from scratch takes about 150 hours but my team and I have built a lot of them. We’re quite fast,” he said.

The boat builders are all from different nations and distinct cultures, but one common thread connects them all – reviving a dying skill.

“I remember hearing stories as a child and imagining what it would be like being in a skin boat,” said Kùkhhittàn (Raven) Clan Tlingit carver Doug Smarch Jr. “We’ve only ever heard stories about it and now we created this thing and we’re going to have this experience.”

Smarch is guided by his father, a boat-builder and respected elder from the Inland Tlingit community in Teslin. But Smarch decided that he needed to share this knowledge.

“I gathered the knowledge from my father. It would be shame to have that knowledge and not share it,” he said.

Smarch brought on board John Peters Jr., also a member of the Kùkhhittàn Clan. His father was a boat builder too.

“We come from a community of boat builders. Our people came from the coast,” he said. Together they built the moose skin boat, which was traditionally used to cross rivers and lakes. Once over the river, the canoe would be flipped over, the skin removed and used to make clothes.

“Sometimes when there was no other wood available to make camp, they would use the wood from the canoe. Nothing was wasted,” he said.

For Smarch, this is a timeless experience.

“Our ancestor’s stories are going to be our stories now. Except this time, our stories won’t fade,” he said. “We’re going to make legends.”

Sharing of knowledge transpired between Northern boat builders, but they were also joined by another canoe culture all the way from down under. Twelve Maori canoers travelled to Whitehorse to be a part of the project and share their experiences.

“We’re looking forward to a long-standing cultural exchange with the area,” said Lyonel Grant, master carver and Maori boat builder.

Grant and his team designed and carved intricate Maori adornments that were temporarily fitted to the bow and stern of the dugout canoe owned by the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre. The launch of the boats started with a traditional ceremony at the centre, after which all the boats were paraded along the riverfront to the boat launch near Rotary Park. Traditonal drummers and singers in their regalia led the parade, with the Tlingit-Maori fusion canoe bringing up the rear. The Maoris dressed in their traditional attire, which included facial Tā mokos (traditional Maori tattoos).

They paddled the decorated canoe side by side with the other boats, as elders and community members sang a prayer song to ensure their safe travel on the waters of the mighty Yukon river.

“It is an extraordinary experience to see all the ships on the water all at once that spans thousands and thousands of years of history, how our Indigenous ancestors got around, met each other on the water. It’s a tribute to our past,” said Price. “Maybe our ancestors have done this before.”

Contact Sharon Nadeem at sharon.nadeem@yukon-news.com

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The boats head out on the Yukon River. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News)

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