The Canoes

This article, written by curator Beth Boyce, appeared in the March 2020 edition of the Museum’s newsletter, Musings.

The Liqʷala word for canoe is xʷak̓ʷənʔa. In the past xʷak̓ʷənʔa, dugout canoes carved from a single cedar log, were the only way to travel on the coast. They were made in all sizes, from a small two person canoe that could be steered and manoeuvered by children, to the large ships that would transport more than 50 people and their belongings. They were designed to traverse all sorts of conditions, the open Pacific Ocean, swift running tidal passages, rivers and inland lakes. Many were even equipped with woven cedar sails.

Changing technologies, the loss of the large old growth trees needed for the larger canoes, and the influence of the   outboard motor, saw the decline of xʷak̓ʷənʔa on the coast.  For many years they were not being carved, and the knowledge of the skills needed to paddle and maintain the canoes were fading. Expo ’86 in Vancouver saw a single dugout canoe, Glwa, paddling in the inner harbour after a long journey from Bella Bella. Following Expo, the Haida canoe Loo Taas, carved by Bill Reid, made the journey from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii. It was a start. In 1989, the Paddle to Seattle saw fifteen canoes make the Journey. At that time, Frank Brown, a Heiltsuk man who participated in the paddle, challenged everyone present, and those not in attendance, to meet in Bella Bella in 1993. This challenge was accepted by many Nations, and in July 1993, twenty-five canoes paddled in to Bella Bella to celebrate the Qatuwas festival, over 2,000 people were in attendance. 

The Liǧʷiɫdax̌ʷ were represented by the canoe ƛ̓əniqwala which was carved for the occasion from an 800 year old cedar.  It was the first   canoe carved by Bill Henderson, but it would certainly not be his last.  ƛ̓əniqwala, meaning lightening, took over six weeks to carve.

The canoe was designed by Sam Henderson Jr. who carved several scale models before he perfected the design, and was painted by Mark Henderson. It was Junior Henderson’s first major carving project, and he received school  credits from Carihi for his participation. 

It took seventeen paddlers, pulling in three hour shifts, ten days to travel from Campbell River to Bella Bella.    Elected Band Councillor Robert Duncan, said about the journey, “We like to think that it’s a pretty fast canoe, it made the 250-odd mile trip to Bella Bella in about 50-odd hours so we averaged over five miles per hour, I’m pretty proud of that.”

The final model of the canoe carved by Sam Jr was given as a gift to the Museum from the Wei Wai Kum Nation upon the opening of its new facility in May 1994. At the Museum’s opening ceremonies, Elected Band Councillor Robert Duncan commented, “1993 was recognized as the year of Indigenous People, as declared by the United Nations. As part of those festivities, ceremonies, and celebrations, ourselves as well as a great deal of other First Nations people throughout the coast of British Columbia, Alaska, Washington and so forth gathered and celebrated that event in Bella Bella called the Qatuwas festival… So we carved and built our own canoe.  Most of the school children in this area were invited to share that experience to a certain extent, to watch the carvers work and so forth… And most of us, and certainly those that we met on the way on the Journey, were proud of the fact that we were able to go, proud of the fact that probably in this area, for example, one of these crafts haven’t been built in over 100 years. So it was a new experience for all of us and not only the carving of it, the building of it, but also the Journey itself.”

When Dr. Bob Gordon (himself a participant on the Journey) accepted the model canoe for the Museum’s collection he said the Journey was “the experience of a lifetime” and went on to say, “Sam, who engineered this, has a wonderfully simplistic way of building a large canoe. He said you just build a small one. And then you get it right. And then you build a 42’ one. And you get it right. And he was right!”

A common thread when speaking to those who have participated in canoe journeys is the life changing nature of the experience. It impacts everyone in a meaningful way. The practice of Tribal Journeys, as they are now called, has continued annually and grown exponentially. You may recall when it was hosted by the Liǧʷiɫdax̌ʷ in the summer of 2017 and over 100 canoes paddled in to land on the Campbell River Spit. It was extraordinary.

Today, ƛ̓əniqwala is not the only local canoe in the waters.  The We Wai Kai of Cape Mudge carved a canoe from a nearly 1,000 year old tree, launched in May 2004.  Called Likʷiɫdaxʷ, it was carved under the guidance of Bill    Henderson. Many of the Nation’s youth participated in the project, and school children from both Quadra Island and Campbell River went on field trips to visit the carving shed while it was in progress.  It continues to participate in Journeys every summer.   

There is a third local canoe being carved in 2019-2020 at Carihi.  The project, spearheaded by School District 72, is being led by carvers from the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum First Nations working together, Max Chickite and Junior Henderson. The goal is to have each student in the district participate in its creation. When complete it will be named, painted, and will go on to participate in Journeys. 

In May, the Museum is the first stop for a new travelling exhibit developed by the Heiltsuk Nation of Bella Bella, called Sacred Journeys, sharing the history, stories and experiences of the canoe Journeys taking place on the coast. It will open to the public on May 13, and will be available to visit until the end of August.  It will then be travelling to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.  This year,  Tribal Journeys is being hosted by the Snuneymuxw First Nation in Nanaimo, July 27-August 1, 2020.

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