Tlingit artist is catalyst for Atlin’s cultural revival

Few members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation have seen a traditional dugout canoe. And no member of the First Nation in living memory has…

Few members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation have seen a traditional dugout canoe.

And no member of the First Nation in living memory has built a working one, carved and decorated according to traditional practice.

Tlingit artist Wayne Carlick is ready to close that gap in culture and history.

Carlick is the catalyst and leader of a canoe-building project for the Atlin First Nation.

He and a team of helpers from Atlin and Five Mile Point settlements have been working on an 11-metre canoe since January.

They plan to finish in time for the Atlin Music Festival, held July 7, 8 and 9.

Festival visitors will be able to join Carlick, his fellow Tlingit, and Atlin village residents to celebrate the creation of what may be the first traditional Tlingit canoe in at least 100 years.

Carlick is also forming a troupe of dancers and singers to help launch the canoe on its inaugural river run, and perform at the music festival and other events.

Carlick was born into the Taku River Tlingit 48 years ago. He left Atlin in the early 1990s to pursue a career as a carver and artist in Vancouver, a hotbed for West Coast First Nations art and culture.

He carried the blessing of the community and the gift of a set of carving knives from its elders.

“Those knives gave me the opportunity to go and carve our traditions,” says Carlick. “It was a dream come true. It seemed like I was always an outsider looking in, and suddenly, I was inside looking out of the art world.”

Carlick’s dream grew out of a 15-year journey of healing from damage he suffered during 10 years of residential schooling at Lower Post, near Watson Lake.

“School messed up most of our people,” says Carlick.

Soon after he arrived in Vancouver, Carlick found a job as a cultural interpreter and carver at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, the result of a chance meeting with a park official.

He also apprenticed to Tahltan artist Dempsey Bob, whom he still acknowledges as his “teacher and mentor.”

The connection opened doors to galleries and Carlick began showing and selling his work as far away as Europe. And he was invited to exhibitions, carving competitions and demonstrations in Germany and Switzerland.

In Vancouver, Carlick joined the circle of aboriginal artists around well-known Haida artist and carver Bill Reid.

There Carlick first learned about canoes: the protocols, the stories, the songs, the camaraderie — how to be “in sync with” his paddle.

During those years he also learned about dancing, singing the drumming, rituals, and the regalia that accompanies traditional performance in many West Coast First Nations.

Carlick travelled from Vancouver to New York, Washington and Chicago to see and study world and indigenous art. And he worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

Out of this activity Carlick built a solid national and international reputation as a carver and artist. Eventually it was time, after 15 years, to thank his community for its early support and encouragement.

A few years ago Haisla artist Henry Robertson began carving a canoe from a 750-year-old cedar log at Mosquito Creek, in Vancouver.

Carlick was part of a team of First Nations artists that worked with Robertson, who suspended the project after roughly half the wood had been removed from the log to rough in the shape of the canoe. The original log weighed close to 1,800 kilograms.

After getting Robertson’s permission to continue working on the canoe, Carlick told his sister Susan: “If this canoe comes home (to Atlin), I will come home with it and I will work on it and finish it.”

The Taku River Tlingit did better than ship the canoe-in-progress from Vancouver to Atlin: it built a cultural centre at Five Mile Point that included a large, open activity area.

“It’s perfect for a carving shed,” says Carlick.

That is where Carlick and his team have been working since January, hollowing out the canoe body with chainsaws and adzes.

He sees no contradiction in using modern tools to build a traditional canoe: “Tools are just tools. They make life easier. We use traditional tools. We use contemporary tools. We listen to traditional music. We listen to contemporary music. We use lots of different things of today.”

But there is no doubt that Carlick wants to revive Taku River Tlingit tradition, culture and ritual by building the canoe.

“Many of the (helpers) know very well that none of their families have ever worked on canoes in this area for many, many years. And so, having the opportunity to bring their family’s culture from generations back, to bring it out alive again in them — gives meaning for them.”

The partly finished canoe that Carlick and his helpers received from Vancouver has been further reduced in weight by more than one-half.

It’s now nearing its final weight of around 350 kilograms, yet there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Adzing out the canoe is the easier part of it. When we get down to the details, that’s when it becomes tough.”

The “details” include decorative carving, painting, and finishing of the canoe shell.

Forming a dance troupe to help launch the canoe with proper ceremony offers Carlick’s helpers and others in the First Nation community an opportunity to connect with Tlingit tradition, spirituality and healing.

“I encourage people that have gone through a rough time in their life to take up something like (dancing) and, who knows, build on it and get stronger,” says Carlick.

“It would probably enhance their lives as much as it has enhanced many people I’ve seen throughout the Lower Mainland. They have gone through everything that we’ve gone through as First Nations. They are strong in their culture. They have canoes. They have songs. They have dance groups. They have regalia. They have all the stuff that the need to show their culture through what they make: the weavings, the drums, the paintings, the regalia, and the beadwork.

“The time that they put into their own culture is evidence that they love it, that it’s part of their life. It’s part of who they are.”

For more information about Wayne Carlick, visit

For information about the 2006 Atlin Music Festival, visit