Tlingit master carver Wayne Price wedges a piece of wood between the width of the dugout canoe he and students at Chatham School District steamed on Tuesday. It’s the first dugout canoe to be made in Angoon since 1882 when the U.S. Navy bombarded the village, destroying all but one of its fleet of dugout canoes. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Tlingit master carver Wayne Price wedges a piece of wood between the width of the dugout canoe he and students at Chatham School District steamed on Tuesday. It’s the first dugout canoe to be made in Angoon since 1882 when the U.S. Navy bombarded the village, destroying all but one of its fleet of dugout canoes. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Chipping away the past: Dugout canoe means healing for Angoon

“This is how we can heal and revive the culture that was taken from us”

This story has been updated to correctly identify the length of the canoe as 30-feet-long, not 35-feet-long.

ANGOON — Tlingit master carver Wayne Price stood hovering over a tarp steaming from the boiling water bubbling beneath it. He leaned down, placing his ear to the wet surface that sat on top of a dugout canoe he spent the last year creating, “there’s only one place you’ll hear that,” he said with kids surrounding him, ears to the tarp too in an attempt to name the sound.

Wayne Price leans through the smoke to turn the an expanding device running across the width of the dugout canoe. The canoe only suffered from one crack during the expanding process, which Price said is common and can be easily fixed. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Wayne Price leans through the smoke to turn the an expanding device running across the width of the dugout canoe. The canoe only suffered from one crack during the expanding process, which Price said is common and can be easily fixed. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

One student described the sound as a whale call, another a waterfall, yet another a downpour of rain.

The 30-foot-long red cedar canoe was in the process of being steamed, a vital step in the canoe’s journey to becoming “ocean-worthy,” Price said. Waking up between 5 and 6 a.m Tuesday morning, Price and six volunteer high school students from Chatham School District spent their morning gathering wood and lighting a large bonfire next to their school parking lot all while rain pattered around them as they prepared the canoe to undergo its reshaping.

The creation of the canoe is a symbol of a new beginning and healing, said Price. It’s the first dugout canoe to be made in Angoon since 1882 when the U.S. Navy bombarded the village, destroying all but one of its fleet of dugout canoes.

“It’s a healing canoe, every chip represents a life lost to alcohol and drugs — every chip is a broken home, a broken family. The amount of chips in a dugout are countless — a lot of healing has to be done,” he said.

Price has created 15 dugouts throughout his 19-year career making them after receiving a vision from “the creator” that called him to the craft. He said working with the students is a chance to continue the craft throughout generations and pass the tradition down for years to come. He said the building of a dugout in Angoon is long overdue, but is a step toward healing the town from its painful past.

“We are at the frontline of a new beginning for the village of Angoon,” Price said. “This is how we can heal and revive the culture that was taken from us.”

The day was spent with the smell of wet cedar and the smoke of the bonfire in the air as students of all ages came together along with community members to watch Price and the students throughout the day. All those involved in the steaming also were fasting, which Price said is a sacrifice for all the healing that still needs to be done.

Kyle Johnson (left), a junior at Chatham School District, dons a firefighting suit as he digs through the coals to scoop a lava rock out. The lava rocks are used to boil water in the dugout canoe to steam it and expand it in size. Anthony Johnson, a senior at Chatham School District, reaches down to grab the metal cages that keeps the rocks from burning through the wood. This is Johnson’s second time experiencing the steaming of a canoe as he also participated in a dugout steaming in Hoonah in 2016.

Kyle Johnson (left), a junior at Chatham School District, dons a firefighting suit as he digs through the coals to scoop a lava rock out. The lava rocks are used to boil water in the dugout canoe to steam it and expand it in size. Anthony Johnson, a senior at Chatham School District, reaches down to grab the metal cages that keeps the rocks from burning through the wood. This is Johnson’s second time experiencing the steaming of a canoe as he also participated in a dugout steaming in Hoonah in 2016.

Price and students planned to steam the canoe until it reached a width of 50 inches, more than a foot longer than its starting width at 35 inches. The process included filling the dugout with lava rocks — which were so hot the students wore firefighting suits — until the water got boiling and then covered with a tarp to steam the wood.

“It’s a tribute to the ancestors that figured this out in the first place” Price said. “This is a project I’ve been wanting to do for 20 years here — it’s finally come about.”

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
Wayne Price chucks a piece of burn wood onto the fire as he and student dug through it in search of lava rocks. The rocks do not originate from Angoon and Price brought them over for this specific reason.
Wayne Price chucks a piece of burn wood onto the fire as he and student dug through it in search of lava rocks. The rocks do not originate from Angoon and Price brought them over for this specific reason. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire Wayne Price chucks a piece of burn wood onto the fire as he and student dug through it in search of lava rocks. The rocks do not originate from Angoon and Price brought them over for this specific reason. Wayne Price chucks a piece of burn wood onto the fire as he and student dug through it in search of lava rocks. The rocks do not originate from Angoon and Price brought them over for this specific reason. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A canoe “long overdue”

Oct. 26 will mark 140 years since the U.S. The Navy opened fire and burned the village of Angoon, killing at least six children and “countless” more due to its impact during the winter which left the people of Angoon nearly starved to death, according to Sealaska Heritage Institute.

The 1882 shelling and burning were in response to a deadly confrontation with a private whaling and trading company, according to the Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command. The confrontation between the company and the Alaska Natives came after bombs used in whaling accidentally exploded and killed an Alaska Native crew member from Angoon.

In response, the village of Angoon demanded 200 blankets from the private company as payment for the death, along with “seizing the whaling-boats with their equipment, and holding two of the white men prisoners until the amount should be paid,” explained a letter from the Navy ship Corwin’s commander, M.A. Healy.

But, instead of payment, the private company reached out to the U.S Navy which then dispatched ships with marines to Angoon. According to the letters, the hostages were immediately released when the ships arrived but as “punishment” the U.S. Navy Captain E.C. Merriman “demanded twice the number of blankets demanded by the Indians, and threatened, in case of refusal, to destroy their canoes and villages.”

But it was more than the village could provide in the end, 40 of the village canoes were destroyed, leaving all but one that was away at the time and only five houses survived the burning.

“Canoes are life givers,” said Shgendootan George, a retired Tlingit teacher for Juneau’s Tlingit, Culture, Language and Literacy program. “Angoon never received that apology — and there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done.”

Steps toward a formal apology seemed to be coming to Angoon when Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom Bussiere, Commander of Alaskan Command visited the town in February of 2020.

[Setting it right: Military could apologize for bombarding Alaska Native villages]

Meeting with Native leaders, they discussed U.S. military violence in Southeast Alaska and the legacy that comes with it. Chenara Kookesh-Johnson, Tlingit language teacher for Chatham School District and Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, said though the pain still runs deep in Angoon, it is a shared experience across other Southeast Alaska communities. In 1869, the U.S. military also destroyed villages near what is now Wrangell and Kake, according to the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

But, more than two years after Bussiere’s visit, the community of Angoon remains empty-handed with no apology.

Kookesh-Johnson said the apology is “long overdue” but would give the town a sense of closure and allow the next generations to heal.

Students pull the lava rocks out of the fire using shovels. The group spent the day rotating the rocks in order to have them as hot as possible to boil the water. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Students pull the lava rocks out of the fire using shovels. The group spent the day rotating the rocks in order to have them as hot as possible to boil the water. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A step forward

Price and the students plan to have the dugout in “ocean-worthy” condition by the 140th commemoration date, which will also mark the dedication ceremony where Kootznoowoo Inc – the company that sponsored the building of the canoe — will hand over the ownership to the school said Kookesh-Johnson. There aren’t any specific plans for what the school will use the canoe for, Kookesh-Johnson said, but she said it will open the door for the students to celebrate their culture in a way they haven’t been able to before.

Anthony Johnson, a senior at Chatham School District, reaches down to grab the metal cages that keeps the rocks from burning through the wood. This is Johnson’s second time experiencing the steaming of a canoe as he also participated in a dugout steaming in Hoonah in 2016. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Anthony Johnson, a senior at Chatham School District, reaches down to grab the metal cages that keeps the rocks from burning through the wood. This is Johnson’s second time experiencing the steaming of a canoe as he also participated in a dugout steaming in Hoonah in 2016. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“It’s amazing, I’ve been here all my life, and I’ve never been able to see something like this done,” said Russel James, a lifelong resident of Angoon and a friend of Price.

The canoe hit 50 inches in mid-afternoon and only suffered one crack, which Price said is easily fixed. After cleaning out the dirt and charcoal that turned the once-clear water temporarily black, the students move the canoe under a canopy to be flipped over and dried before getting a protective coat.

The students gathered around the flipped-over canoe and began to sing and slap their hands on the wood to a unison beat.

“It’s alive,” Price said. “It’s a living thing now with a new beginning. The tree gave its life and now it’s going to get a new one.”

Though the past still reverberates into the present for many residents in Angoon, George said the steaming event is a way to look back on history and revive a piece of Angoon’s culture that has been missing for more than a century.

A student jumps on a pile of shredded cedar left over from the carving process of the dugout canoe. Wayne Price and the students spent more than a year carving a red cedar tree into a 30-feet-long dugout. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A student jumps on a pile of shredded cedar left over from the carving process of the dugout canoe. Wayne Price and the students spent more than a year carving a red cedar tree into a 30-feet-long dugout. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“All I can think to say is it’s powerful, ” George said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience — it makes history feel tangible.”

As the steaming came to a close and the final round of rocks were sitting in the canoe, George stood next to the fire with her young daughter. The sound of laughter and chatting could be heard from the young students who volunteered to be there, and the other community members who joined to watch. Price’s son and grandchildren gathered at the event as well, marking three generations witnessing this revival of culture.

The rain continued to patter down, but the fire remained to burn steadily, keeping all those near it engulfed with an embrace of warmth.

George leaned down to her daughter — who was antsy to get something to eat — and said “this is so special, baby. You might never ever see this again in your life.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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