Paddle workshop connects crafters with Native culture

For as long as the Tlingit people have built canoes, they have carved paddles. Just as there are many different sizes and styles of canoes for various purposes, paddles are created to be just as unique to their users.

The tradition of carving paddles continues today throughout Southeast for cultural celebrations, dancing, decorations and even paddling canoes.

In Wrangell, a workshop held April 22-24 educated about 15 participants on the type of wood to use, how to carve it and properly finish it.

"We wanted to bring people together here before we headed to Celebration this June (in Juneau)," said Dixie Hutchinson, one of the leaders for the Shx'at Kwaán dance group, which organized the workshop. "We thought this would be a great community opportunity to get people excited about the culture and get ready to represent Wrangell at the Celebration."

Celebration, sponsored by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, is a biennial festival of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures. The 2022 event, scheduled for June 8-11, will be the first since 2018, as 2020 was canceled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Past Celebrations have drawn up to 5,000 people, including more than 2,000 dancers.

Hutchinson said the workshop was free to participants thanks to sponsors Sealaska, the Sealaska Carving and Bark Program, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, Rasmuson Foundation and Alaska Marine Lines Wrangell office. The space was provided by high school shop teacher Winston Davies, and Doug Chilton, a master carver based in Juneau, was brought in to teach the class.

One of the participants in the class, Luella Knapp, AAnshaawasnook, who is the speaker of the Naanyaa.aayí clan house, said it was an exciting process because of the connection to her ancestral roots. Her Tlingit name Aanshaawasnook is among the Naanyaa.aayí ancestor names.

"It's part of my culture, that's why I was so excited (for the class)," Knapp said. "And then to be getting a bear (design) on it, that's one of our main clans in the Naanyaa.aayí. That's our emblem."

Though the shape and sanding are finished on Knapp's paddle, she has yet to paint the form line artwork bear with acrylic paints. She will coat it with linseed or other appropriate oil.

"They're not necessarily dance paddles, but they're creating the paddles we would use in a canoe," Hutchinson said. "They can modify them and make them dance paddles. We'll carry them in the Celebration parade so they'll have a nice cool look as they're going down the street with all the other dance groups."

According to a "Wood & Waterways: A Look at Tlingit Canoes," published by the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, Tlingit canoes (yaakw) are dugout vessels made from the red cedar and yew trees found on Native land throughout Southeast. Yaakw ranged from single-person canoes up to 30-person war canoes.

In Wrangell, the moon canoe (disi yaakw) was a smaller craft made for hunting and fishing. Paddles (Axáa) were also made with yellow cedar or yew due to the sturdiness of the woods.

That same practice was used at the recent class, with red cedar being used for dance paddles since it is lighter, and yellow for canoe paddles since it is more durable.

"Having this wood come from our traditional homelands from Sealaska is kind of monumental," Hutchinson said. "It's super clean wood, no knots. We want to make sure they have a clean presentation."

Chilton worked with each participant in the class, measuring arm lengths, body heights and hand grips to ensure each paddle was carved specifically for its respective user. He also provided form line templates, like the bear Knapp used, for anyone who wanted to adorn their paddle.

"I love this (the hand grip) here because he fit the paddle for me and for my height," Knapp said. "It's not too big, not too small. It's just right for me. I've never really made a paddle like this before in this size."

Along with the personal paddles, nine separate paddles were made to represent each of Wrangell's clans at Celebration. "We're going to carry those out in front of the group to show Wrangell," Hutchinson said.


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