PUBLISHED: 5:09 PM on Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Sealaska begins national canoe project for Smithsonian Institute
Juneau's own Sealaska Heritage Institute will be providing a special addition to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. In renovating a hall at the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian is creating a new permanent exhibition on the ocean. Featured in the exhibit will be a 26-feet long traditional wood canoe, commissioned by Sealaska.

"It's going to be called Oceans Hall. I just visited it last week (and) it's going to be phenomenal," said Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Photo by Abby LaForce
  Members of Tee Harbor Construction roll a log of old growth red cedar on the outside plaza of Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau. The log will be carved into a 26-feet long traditional wood canoe and placed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. The carving process will be seen on a Web cast online at
Worl, who is on the Arctic Studies Center board of the National Museum of Natural History, began talking about plans for the Oceans Hall with anthropologists.

"They pressed the need of having the presence of indigenous people in this Ocean Hall. We started working with them and came up with the idea of the canoe - to talk about the maritime cultures of the northwest coast. It's not only the Tlingits but all of northwest coast cultures," she said.

"The canoe is going to have a very prominent place, right at the end of the hall, there's big windows in the back, so you'll be able to see it."

The Oceans Hall is set to open in September 2008, Worl said.

"Anthropologists are learning there are different roots to civilization, and one are the maritime cultures that have an abundance of resources and wealth. We wanted to tell that story about the relationship of indigenous people to the ocean or maritime sources. Also, we wanted to talk about the different kind of relationship the Native people have to their environment, to their resources or to animals; we have a spiritual relationship. Those were the themes we wanted to have - the symbol of these relationships is the canoe," she said.

"It originally started out as a log on Prince of Whales, we went and selected it with Sealaska Timber (Corporation). Once we selected a log that was suitable, we had it shipped to Juneau. Once it was brought here, it was taken out to a lot at the airport (and) cut down to size," said Donald Gregory, administrative assistant of special projects.

The log, which is old growth red cedar and was originally about 40 feet before trimming, will be created at Sealaska's outside plaza.

An exciting component will be the Web cast posted on; viewers will be able to follow the construction of the canoe through a web cam. Sealaska is in the process of ordering equipment but will not have the web cam set up until the carving begins.

Currently, it's uncertain who will be carving the canoe, according to Worl. The organization hopes to begin the carving process sometime in August of this year.

When selecting the tree, Sealaska and the National Museum of Natural History conducted a special tree blessing ceremony at Trocadero Bay on Prince of Wales Island on April 14.

"No exhibition about the oceans could be complete without the story of the human connection. For that story, the Smithsonian sought a dramatic symbol of human prowess and mastery of the ocean world. We sought a symbol that recognizes the extraordinary spiritual and emotional as well as the economic and practical bonds that the ocean has always presented to the brave and adventurous. We found the perfect symbol - the canoe," read Byron Mallott, who is on the board of trustees for the National Museum of American Indians as well as the Sealaska Corporation Board of Directors, during the ceremony. Cristián Samper, director for the National Museum of Natural History, originally wrote the message of greeting and appreciation for the ceremony.

"We had to thank the tree spirits for letting use the log. In a broader context for Sealaska's harvest, we had to thank the trees and tell the spirits what we were going to use the trees for," Worl said.

While still in its discussion phase, they're planning on paddling the canoe up the Potomac River in Washington D.C., once it arrives by freight. Honoring its inaugural voyage in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it will find a harbor at the museum.

Along with paddlers, Worl said they'll have box drums playing along.

"Can you imagine this 26-foot canoe paddling up the Potomac?" Worl said.

"Providing an inspirational display as well as "anchoring" an exhibit on the abiding intimacy between the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast and other North Pacific indigenous cultures, and salmon--we hope it will lead to recognition of the responsibilities all human beings share to safe-guard and protect our home, this ocean world," Samper said in the tree blessing message.

The canoe itself will cost about $60,000, not including freight charges. Worl expressed her gratitude toward Sealaska for their contribution to the museum exhibit.

"We're really excited, as the Natural History (Museum) has visitorship of around seven million a year. We're glad that Sealaska and Southeast Native people will be featured in this exhibit," Worl said.