On a grey autumn weekend in early October, Kitamaat Village is the picture of tranquility.
The waters of the Douglas Channel are so still, they form a glistening painting of the mountains above them and the fishing boats moored to docks at the southernmost end of the village.
The occasional pickup truck winds its way through the community of about 700 people, but only one sound consistently disrupts the calm: the rhythmic and resounding thunk coming from Kah Kah neese Baba’o Tomé Cordeiro’s front yard.
“I’m practicing, working my way up to build my first full-length canoe,” Cordeiro says, surrounded by fragrant chippings from the 12-foot-long vessel he sits in.
He’s barely visible, hunched over as he carves out the base of the cedar canoe, his face in shadow under a woven cedar bark hat. It’s a labour of love and importance in a First Nation that, like many across Canada, has had to work too hard to pass on its traditions through the crippling impacts of colonization.
“Canoes used to be the backbone of the Haisla and that’s partially probably why we’re still here,” Cordeiro explains.
“I’m there to help keep it alive. I’d like to see us paddle to Bella Bella one day in the gathering of the canoes.”
With no previous experience in canoe-carving, Cordeiro is proving it’s never too late to learn something new. And while he chips away at his practice vessels, his mentor is crafting what’s believed to be the first ocean-going canoe built in the North Coast nation in 30 years, revitalizing a practice that is thousands of years old.
The Haisla Nation, as it’s known today, is an amalgamation of two bands that have occupied the land since time immemorial: the Kitamaat and the Kitlope. It has more than 2,000 citizens, and of those who live locally,as their ancestors did before them.
Yet according to local carver Mike Robinson, the tradition and art of canoe-building has not had the same uptake, with carving itself having become “almost a dead art.”
“It used to run in the family. It was sort of hereditary,” Robinson, a relative of legendary carver Sammy Robinson, tells Global News from beneath the tarp housing 36 feet of red cedar bound for the ocean.
“I was always carving this, that and the other thing ever since I was a little kid. I carved little toy boats and put them on a string, and tied them on a branch over a stream so the water would make waves and look like the real thing.”
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As a child, Robinson watched his father build canoes. Eventually, he studied carving at the Kitanmax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in ‘Ksan, a historical Gitxsan village near Hazelton, B.C.
After years of carving static pieces — totem poles and masks — Robinson decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, obtaining his first canoe log in 2016.
“I wanted to see something in the art that was kind of alive. This thing would move and it would move people and it would take them to different places,” he explains.
The decision to carve a canoe was also inspired by a late elder who wrote about it, Robinson adds. According to the elder, everything in the natural environment has a spirit, including the cedar trees used for canoes.
“Our people call that spirit ‘mgougou and the spirit was a shapeshifter,” Robinson recounts.
“He would turn himself into a canoe, he’d influence somebody’s thinking and he’d get that person to build a canoe. I think that’s what’s happened to me.”
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Robinson has been working on his canoe intermittently for the past seven years, but estimates his red cedar log is more than 500 years old based on the rings he counted when he first cut into it.
Cordeiro has been an apprentice for the past four years, learning the properties of cedar logs, how they change in the drying process and how to treat cracks that form while building.
He got his own 64-foot-long canoe log in 2020, and it was delivered to his front yard — unplanned — on his late grandfather’s birthday. Cordeiro says his grandfather was also a canoe-builder, but died before Cordeiro had a chance to learn from him.
“I do know that he’s pretty proud right now, and there will be a day when I’ll be on those canoes in the water and he’ll be smiling down.”
Cordeiro has already built a 10-foot-long canoe. He successfully launched his 12-footer “skinoe” — a nickname for the skinny boat — into the water last week and hopes to attach a motor to the end of it.
He won’t begin carving his ocean-going canoe, however, until he has more time to commit to it. After that, he says he plans to take on an apprentice of his own.
“I definitely will find someone who will be interested enough to pick up the tools and learn our ways. What Mike has taught me, I’ll pass on one day.”
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Robinson’s canoe was meant to be for practice, but he says it turned out so well, he plans to paint and carve it in the theme of the sea wolf and killer whale. His canoe’s story is the “survival of the ability to make ocean-going canoes,” he adds.
“I think I’m the last person here that can do it, so it’s an example of the canoe-building legacy and it’s surviving to this day.”
Robinson says the last ocean-going canoe was built in the Haisla Nation around 1993, but got “smashed up in a snowstorm” along with the shed it was stored in. While he and Cordeiro work to breathe new life into the practice, he says getting the next generation interested in the art could be more challenging than the actual carving.
“They’re so busy on their iPhones,” he laments. “Take them out on canoes and take them crabbing and fishing and camping along the shore. The young people, the young kids — they don’t have much of an opportunity for that kind of stuff nowadays.
“I owe a lot to my father, including the ability to build something like this.”
Cordeiro says he got involved in many aspects of his First Nations culture later in life, including the weaving of cedar bark hats. He’s not sure if his particular weaving style is Haisla, but describes it now as “Tommy style,” just like his canoe.
“Weaving and canoe-building definitely has me more grounded,” he tells Global News. “I’m — I think it’s eight years sober — but the past six years, I really dove into my cultural endeavours.”
If his dream comes true and the nation paddles to Bella Bella for the annual canoe gathering one day, Cordeiro says he’d like to see it happen with a fleet of canoes — one for each Haisla clan of Beaver, Raven, Eagle and Killer Whale/Black Fish/Salmon. He’s already started work to get more cedar logs, because “a lot of people come up to me and ask me if they can help.”
“I want others to experience it,” Cordeiro says. “Everybody will embrace it, that’s my guess, because canoes were a way of life back in the day.”