Carving out new lives

The carvers at the Northern Cultural Expression Society usually work with wood, but now they're starting to work in a slightly different medium: paper. The society is getting ready to publish its first book.

The carvers at the Northern Cultural Expression Society usually work with wood, but now they’re starting to work in a slightly different medium: paper.

The society is getting ready to publish its first book.

Awakening Spirits: Echoes of Ancient Yukon Traditions will profile the 19 artists who worked on the dugout canoe project a few years ago.

The other hope is that the book will help introduce the carving program to a new generation of students, said Dianne Villeseche, president of the Northern Cultural Expression Society.

“Our mandate is to help Yukon youth, particularly First Nations youth, and try to help them develop a range of skills to help them meet their goals,” she said.

Through the carving program, students are introduced to traditional First Nations art and culture.

“I find that this program gives those students, that don’t connect in the regular programs, something to connect to,” said Colin Teramura, educational co-ordinator for the society. “As a teacher, that’s all you can ask for.

It’s something that Villeseche has experienced firsthand. Her own daughter has been in the carving program for the last few years.

“She had difficulties in school,” said Villeseche. “We actually had to pull her out of high school because she was bullied so badly.”

That’s when she got involved in the society.

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“I really honestly feel that it’s been a lifesaver for my child, having this place that she can go to where she’s accepted and where she can be creative and grow and learn and be successful.”

But to keep the program going, the society needs to attract new students, which is what the coffee-table book is designed to do.

To print an initial run of 2,000 copies of the book, the carvers need to raise $16,000 over the next month. They’re collecting donations online at www.indiegogo.com/projects/206907.

The idea is to give those 19 artists something to show off to their friends and families, said Villeseche.

“It will make them even more proud of their accomplishments when they see themselves in print,” she said.

And they have a lot to be proud of.

The dugout canoe, which all 19 artists had a hand in, was the first one carved in the Yukon in generations.

Under the tutelage of master carver Wayne Price, the students spent 10 weeks on Egg Island shaping a boat out of a 400-year-old cedar log.

The 30-foot (9.1-metre) canoe is now on display at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

“The dugout was pretty influential and I saw a lot of change in their lives,” said Price. “I think when you combine culture with a healthy lifestyle, it’s a really good fit.”

Price is now working with a new batch of students on a totem pole meant to commemorate the legacy of residential school survivors. The healing totem will also be featured in the book.

The bottom figure on the totem is a mother holding a hollowed out box that will hold ashes made from chips that were hewed out of the pole. Many of those chips have been inscribed with the names of residential school survivors and lost loved ones.

“Each chip represents somebody lost or affected by residential schools,” said Teramura.

Moving up the totem there are carvings of a child and father, which represent the reunification of the family torn apart by residential schools. Figures representing the wolf and crow clans sit above that.

“Then there’s a little blank spot at the very top and that blank spot represents the future, the unwritten, the uncarved future,” said Teramura.

They are going to burn the chips on Nov. 1. They plan to raise the pole two days later near the White Pass building at the end of Main Street. It’s a task they’ll need help with.

“We need lots of people, specifically survivors and their families, but everyone is invited, everyone’s needed,” said Teramura.

“The work that they’re doing on this healing totem is history being made today,” said Price. “It’s a pretty big statement itself that they can put something like this together, offer it to the community of Whitehorse, and it’s going to stand, it’s going to be here for a long time.”

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com