Northwest Passage

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Out of the living sinews of a 40-foot, centuries-old red cedar, students at Seattle’s public Alternative School #1 carved a lasting connection with the native Haida people of Alaska. Several years in the making, their 700-pound canoe was crafted in a makeshift workshop on school grounds, then brought to the Alaskan tribe as a gift, thanks in large part to a seafaring principal and a Native American master carver.

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"The canoe is the bridge, the carver is the guide, and the children were the reason," says former principal Ron Snyder, who saw the project as a way to help restore tribal customs lost through the centuries of integration forced upon the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Among them was the school’s artist-in-residence for the project, Robert Peele, a descendant of Haida royalty, whose ancestors once carved a 63-foot canoe now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Peele, who also goes by his Haida name of Saaduuts, didn’t learn the almost-forgotten canoe culture of his people until adulthood, when he sought it as a way to connect with his roots. "If two generations miss a skill, it’s gone," Snyder says," unless someone comes back for it, and he did."

While working on a smaller canoe at Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats, Saaduuts met Snyder, who had brought his love for wooden ships to AS #1 when he became principal of the K-8 school in 1989. A lifelong sailor, Snyder started a yacht club at AS #1 and introduced hands-on boat-building as a way to teach math, reading, and history— particularly the history of the region’s native peoples, from whom 10 percent of his students were descended.

The two men got to talking, and Saaduuts "became part of our community," Snyder says. Then came the job of tackling the 40-foot red cedar, donated by a lumber company. "We thought we’d get this done in a year," Snyder recalls, laughing. In reality, it took the original Haida people two years to build a canoe, and it wound up taking the group of students, parents, and volunteers at AS #1 more than three.

First, they hollowed out the canoe by hand, steamed the hull apart using volcanic rock, and painted totems on the bow and stern as a tribute to Haida’s two royal families. Then, this past spring, the AS #1 community shipped the boat to Hydaburg on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, where it was unloaded, floated, and paddled into town by a group of Seattle students. Many of the town’s 300-odd residents—only three of whom still speak the tribe’s native language—picked up the canoe and carried it to the local school’s gymnasium for an elaborate welcoming ceremony that included songs, dances, and the exchange of handcrafted gifts.

Several months later, the connections continue. Saaduuts is training a new group of carvers at a local park as he builds a canoe for another native tribe; and at AS #1, a class of students will return to Hydaburg this year, trading places with their counterparts for an extended stay. "Children are the key to correcting our mistakes," says Snyder, who retired this past summer. "We became ambassadors."

Vol. 16, Issue 1, Pages 40-45

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Northwest Passage
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