Dugout Canoes: A Family Affair

Posted on August 8, 2014

The traditional dugout canoe has always been an important part of life for the Tla-o-qui-aht people of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations. The Tla-o-qui-aht’s territory lies at the southern end of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. The name Clayoquot is actually an Anglicization of the word Tla-o-qui-aht, which means “people who are different than they used to be.” Living on the coast, the Tla-o-qui-aht used canoes for many everyday purposes, from short and long-distance travel to ceremonies and also for hunting prey like seals and even whales.

“The whole lifestyle was about canoeing,” says Tsimka Martin, an Aboriginal guide with Tofino’s Tashii Paddle School who shares her Nuu-Chah-Nulth culture during paddling tours of Clayoquot Sound. “The Nuu-Chah-Nulth people were well known whale hunters, although it has been about 100 years since there was a traditional whale hunt. But a whale hunting canoe would be about 32 to 35 feet long, which is considerably smaller than the size of a whale.”

The traditional art of carving canoes has survived the passage of time into modern day, with the ancestral knowledge being passed down from generation to generation.

“The basic Tla-o-qui-aht design evolved for the many moods of the Pacific Ocean and has remained unchanged for as long as our people can remember,” she said. Each canoe is fashioned from a single red cedar tree. The typical age of a tree used for a canoe log is between 400 to 800 years old. Each canoe is also completely unique and even gets its’ own name. And after the canoe is complete, there is a blessing and naming ceremony, and only then is the canoe launched for the first time on open water.

The dugout canoe has become a powerful and lasting symbol of Nuu-Chah-Nulth culture, and a resurgence of canoe travel culture has emerged thanks to the creation of modern canoe tribal journeys to a common destination each summer. There has also been an increase in the use of canoes for ceremonial and practical purposes, because more canoes are being made in the traditional ways.

Tsimka’s father, world-famous canoe carver Joe Martin, has had a lot to do with that resurgence. “My father learned from his father, and so on,” said Tsimka. “And more recently, we have had a couple of apprentices that have been learning from my father. And have carved a few canoes with him. So, it’s pretty exciting because now we know the art will continue to be passed on for many years.”

In addition to her knowledge of traditional canoe building and the local environment, Tsimka also regularly shares the traditional paddling songs she learned from her father and at Tla-o-qui-aht gatherings, including chants used to identify the Tla-o-qui-aht when her ancestors deftly paddled into other peoples’ territories. That same identifier paddle song was also intoned as a welcome song when others visited Tla-o-qui-aht territory.

If you are heading to the beautiful west coast of Vancouver Island, don’t miss the opportunity to explore Clayoquot Sound with Tsimka in one of her Dad’s traditional dugout cedar canoes.

Click here for more information on Tashii Paddle School in Tofino.