Raven Spirit: A Native American Canoe's Journey
The Tlingit Raven Spirit Canoe and Carver, Douglas Chilton
CREDIT: Don Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution
The Master Carver
Over 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.
The Sacred Canoe
Native 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.
The 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.
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.
June 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.
Suspended 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.”