Canoe found in Southeast may be 500 years old

Ancient tools were used to hew wood in 34-foot craft.

July 12, 2011 

A Haida canoe, possibly from the time of Columbus, was discovered near Kasaan last winter.

PHOTO BY SARAH DYBDAHL / SEALASKA HERITAGE INSTITUTE

A centuries-old Haida canoe has been discovered near the Prince of Wales Island village of Kasaan, Sealaska Corp. announced Tuesday. Work on the nearly 34-foot vessel may have stopped around the same time that Columbus sailed from Spain.

A surveyor with Sealaska's subsidiary, the Sealaska Timber Corporation, spotted the canoe under a heavy layer of moss while working on forested land owned by the Alaska Native regional corporation last winter.

"(Engineers and field personnel) are instructed to immediately secure the area" when they recognize potential historical objects, Sealaska Executive Vice President Rick Harris said in a written statement. "(To) stop any activities that may negatively affect the cultural resource, and contact Sealaska Heritage Institute, which oversees these matters." Steps were quickly taken to protect the area until a full investigation could take place.

Following the spring snowmelt, Sealaska leaders and tribal members from Kasaan visited the site. Daniel Monteith, an anthropology professor at the University of Alaska Southeast helped with the inspection.

Of particular importance was the fact that the work on the canoe appeared to have been done with pre-contact hand tools.

"Other abandoned canoes have been found in Southeast Alaska, but it is rare to find canoes crafted with traditional tools," said Dr. Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

The present-day village of Kasaan was founded in 1900, at which time tribal members had access to modern, metal tools.

The visitors also noted that at least five cedars in the vicinity had been harvested using traditional tools.

Equally important was the age of the cedar forest that had grown up around the canoe site after it was abandoned. Wade Zammit, President and CEO of Sealaska Timber Corp., put the age of that growth at around 500 years.

The carving of the canoe was nearly complete, but it had not yet been steamed, a process used to give the craft its final shape. Another log that apparently split when it was harvested also lies at the site, and segments of its wood appear to have been salvaged for other uses.

For now Sealaska is keeping the canoe site private and secure. The Organized Village of Kasaan will make decisions about the care and use of the canoe and site.

Worl hopes that the canoe can be replicated so modern Haida canoe-makers can study the ancient techniques. In the longer term, the site could become an educational forum where future carvers could make monumental art such as canoes and totems, she said.


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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