Raven Spirit: A Native American Canoe's Journey
Over the course of a year, Douglas Chilton skillfully chipped away at a cedar log with traditional tools used by his ancestors for generations. Chilton, a master carver and member of the Tlingit Nation, gradually transformed the log into a 26-foot-long, traditional ocean going canoe that would be named Raven Spirit (Yéil Yeik).
The native peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast (the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes) lived on offshore islands and along the jagged coastline extending from the Oregon-Washington border to Yakutat Bay in the southeastern Alaskan panhandle. Traditional canoes like the Raven Spirit allowed them to move between the islands and the shore to stay connected, trade, and gather resources freely, such as harvesting salmon that migrated hundreds of miles upstream to spawn. It was their way of navigating the ocean, with both its hardships and bounty that defined life for the native peoples. "Human life on earth has in many ways been a response to the challenges of the ocean world," Smithsonian anthropologist and curator Stephen Loring told Smithsonian Magazine. The canoe is a "uniquely American watercraft and a powerful symbol of human ingenuity and accomplishment."
This canoe ended up at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where it is honored on display in the Sant Ocean Hall. Flip through the slides to learn about how Chilton carved the canoe and how, under a watchful raven’s eye, this handmade Tlingit canoe became a symbol of the ocean and of Alaska’s Native peoples at the museum.
The Tlingit Raven Spirit Canoe and Carver, Douglas Chilton
Master carver Douglas Chilton rides in the Raven Spirit canoe at its ceremonial launch.
Don Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution
The Master CarverOver the course of a year, Douglas Chilton skillfully chipped away at a cedar log with traditional tools used by his ancestors for generations. As he worked in downtown Juneau, Alaska, passers-by stopped to watch. People worldwide followed his progress on the Internet. Chilton - a master carver and member of the Tlingit Nation - gradually transformed the log into a 26-foot-long, traditional oceangoing canoe that would be named Raven Spirit.
Mark Kelly, courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute
The Sacred CanoeNative peoples of the Northwest Coast believe each canoe has its own spirit. Designs on their canoes reflect this spiritual relationship with the natural world. Traditional canoes like the one Chilton carved were once used to paddle long distances and to harvest salmon that migrated hundreds of miles upstream to spawn. This reliable resource enabled Northwest peoples to settle down, build villages, and create great works of art.
Giving ThanksThe Raven Spirit canoe's journey began on Prince Wales Island, where Chilton and Tlingit tribal elders selected an ancient red cedar. Its wood is oily, lightweight, and resistant to rot. Following Tlingit tradition, Chilton and the elders thanked the tree, explained how they would use it, and offered food to its spirit. Then they sprinkled a blanket with goose down to protect the tree when it fell. "Every ceremony they would have done 500 years ago, we did now," says Chilton.
Todd Antioquia, courtesy Sealaska Corporation
Raven’s “Blessing”As Chilton prepared the cedar for carving, he noticed a raven with an injured wing watching. Later, as he carved the canoe in Juneau, he again noticed a raven with an injured wing looking on. He believes it was the same bird. Chilton, a member of the Raven clan, considered the bird a blessing. He decided the canoe would feature a raven figurehead. To honor the bird’s vigilance, Chilton incorporated an injured wing into the raven figurehead.
Sealaska Heritage Institute
Canoe FigureheadWith the sun in its beak, a raven figurehead points the way for the Raven Spirit canoe.
Jim DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution
The LaunchJune 19, 2008: The sun shone as Tlingit elder Clarence Jackson led the naming and blessing ceremony for the canoe. To the rhythm of a steady drumbeat, master carver Douglas Chilton and eight paddlers moved in a stately procession down the Potomac River, then returned to the landing. There the boat was named and presented to the Smithsonian Institution—bringing it a step closer to its permanent home.
Jim DiLoreto/Smithsonian Institution
Journey’s EndSuspended from the ceiling of the Sant Ocean Hall, the Raven Spirit is a reminder of how native peoples of the North Pacific honored and depended on the bounty of the sea. Just as the raven of folklore brought sunlight to the world, the Raven Spirit brought the spirit of the Pacific Northwest to the museum. Says Master Carver Douglas Chilton: “This project would be hard to beat.”
Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution