Dugout Canoes: A Master Carver

Posted on August 11, 2014

For the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, dugout canoes were an important part of their traditional lifestyle. With territory that lies at the southern end of Vancouver Island’s Clayoquot Sound, the Nuu-chah-nulth needed these hand-carved canoes to access and defend their ancestral lands, for special ceremonies and also to hunt prey such as seals and even whales.

In the past, the fine art of carving those canoes was passed down from generation to generation, but unfortunately few master canoe carvers still remain amongst the Nuu-chah-nulth.

Joe Martin is one of those remaining, rare master carvers, and he is helping bring about a resurgence of canoe culture and carving knowledge to his people. Joe, whose Aboriginal name is Too-tah-qwees-nup-shitl, which means “a messenger from thunder,” is the son of the late Chief Robert Martin Sr., who was a hereditary chief and a master canoe-carver, as well.

Joe is a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation (part of the Nuu-chah-nulth culture/area grouping on the west coast of Vancouver Island), from the house of Nuukmis. From an early age, Joe had no choice but to learn the craft of canoe carving, along with his brothers, from his father. Since becoming a master carver, Joe has created some 60 or more canoes, ranging in length from 14 to over 30 feet long. Some are sold, others are given away as gifts to other members of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth. Some have been made specifically for museums. Many are still in use up and down the coast.

Each canoe is carved from a single red cedar tree. Joe first cuts down the tree in the forest. The typical tree age for a canoe log is between 400 and 800 years old. He then uses a chainsaw, axes, planes, sanders and other specialized tools to create the final canoe. Once the canoe is hollowed out, it is covered with a large tarp and steamed with water and hot rocks so that the canoe becomes flexible enough to bend and become wider. Joe also has to ensure that the bottom of the canoe is properly curved, because if it is too straight, the canoe will be too hard to steer and turn in the water. The dugout canoe design evolved for the many moods of the Pacific Ocean, yet has remained unchanged since time immemorial. The canoes are built with a high bow, which enables landing on surf beaches, with the whale-hunting canoes traditionally singed black on the outside to look like an orca.

After a few finishing touches and the canoe is completed, there is a blessing and naming ceremony, as all canoes are unique and must have their own special name. Joe has won awards for his carving works, including a BC Creative Achievement Award, and he has also been recognized in books like “Builders of the Pacific Coast” and the “BC Almanac of Greatest British Columbians”.

He’s also passed on his knowledge to his daughters, one of whom hosts tours of Clayoquot Sound in his hand-carved canoes. You can explore the waters around Tofino with Tsimka Martin and T’ashii Paddle School. Joe has also recently taken on young apprentices, and hopes that the canoe-carving arts of his ancestors will continue to be passed on uninterrupted to future generations, thus preserving and continuing his Nuu-chah-nulth culture.