Rediscovering the Lost Artistry of Haida Canoes
When Haida and Tsimshian carver Everett Athorp takes up his tools, he feels the inspiration of his ancestors coming through his art.
“This lineage has been in me since I was born,” he said. “But I feel I had to have an awakening. (I had to pass on the) importance of maintaining the art and craft so it would not be lost to time and forever forgotten.”
It is a risk Athorp knows all too well. While his great-grandfather carved traditional Haida canoes, his grandfather couldn’t. In what Athorp describes as “the Dark Ages of Native art,” Athorp’s grandfather, Jones Yeltatzie, was sent to boarding school and restricted from learning and carrying on the knowledge of carving a canoe.
A single canoe can take up to a year for a lone carver to complete, half a year with apprentices, because every bit of it is hand-carved with traditional Native adzes — similar to a small axe — from a single tree. Traditional canoes could be nearly 60 feet long, carved from the biggest cedar trees to carry dozens of Haida warriors at once. At crucial moments, the canoe is steamed from the inside to bend the wood outward. If done incorrectly, that can split the wood. Modern carvers are still trying to relearn knowledge that should have been passed on in Yeltatzi’s time, but forced separation from the community prevented it.
Yeltatzi was instrumental in restoring the totem parks in Ketchikan, however, in the 1930s. He was a respected carver in his own right, with his works ending up in the Smithsonian, and now Athorp is determined not only to learn about the kind of carving his grandfather did do but to re-learn the canoe carving that Yeltatzi was not able to do.
“I feel the presence of my grandfather—who I watched on many occasions carving,” said Athorp. “But he passed away before he could teach his craft to me. It is he who inspires me!”
And inspire, he has. Athorp has a plethora of projects to his name, from panels to bentwood boxes and totem poles. He’s studied under master artists like Tsimshian carver David Boxley and Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson. His biggest influence, though, was not a fellow carver, but an organizer.
Eleanor Corbitt was the director at the heritage center in Ketchikan, and Athorp considers her his biggest influence. She set up classes on totem poles and the history of carving at the center and encouraged Athorp to study.
It is impossible for Athorp not to talk about the people who taught and influenced him when he talks about his carving. The Native carving communities are inclusive, he said, and have always been open to him.
“Over the years, I have studied and gained knowledge under some of the finest Native American artists,” he said. “But it wasn’t until about twenty years ago I realized I needed to take a leap of faith. Faith in myself, faith in my ancestors, faith in the need to continue to provide education of my culture and honoring my grandfather.”
That leap took him to ever more commissions, works and sales. He’s sold many drums, panels and designs. But more importantly, he’s become to others what those early supporters were to him.
“People will ask me to make them a paddle,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Come over — I’ll teach you.’”
Yet Athorp considers himself still at the intermediate level and has set a big challenge for himself — to make a large Haida canoe. Carved cedar canoes, made entirely from one piece of wood, were a skillful art his ancestors practiced for thousands of years. Due to colonization, they have not been made in the family for three generations now — but Athorp is changing that.
At Athorp’s home in the village of Klawock, he’s started first with a “small” canoe for practice — still 6-feet long. That trial run was necessary for Athorp to learn how to revive the difficult art and get the idea of how to carve a working canoe from a single tree. And he’s now identified a cedar tree large enough to carve a much larger canoe — at least 20 feet.
“I am proud to be an extension of my grandfather’s and will be proud to provide another aspect of my craft with the development and carving of a traditional Haida canoe.”