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.

Master carver Douglas Chilton rides in the Raven Spirit canoe at its ceremonial launch.
Douglas Chilton uses traditional carving tools to shape the Raven Spirit canoe.Members of the Squamish Nation paddle to a 1997 festival celebrating Native canoe arts.Jacqueline Peta of Sealaska’s board of directors participates in the tree-cutting ceremony.This raven routinely observed master carver Douglas Chilton as he shaped the canoe.With the sun in its beak, the canoe’s raven figurehead points the way.Tlingit paddlers set the canoe in Washington’s Potomac River for its ceremonial launch.The Raven Spirit is now prominently displayed in the Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall.