Čapac (Dugout Canoe) Carving Mentor-Apprentice

Passing on knowledge to the next generation

"Paddling dugout canoes really reconnects people back to the land...It is an excellent way to understand our culture, our ties to the land here, and our relationship to different people all up and down the coast.”

– Joe Martin


Cultural lifeways for the ƛaʔuukʷiatḥ (Tla-o-qui-aht) First Nation of west coast Vancouver Island are deeply rooted in the temperate forests and oceans within their traditional, unceded, ancestral territory. This intimate relationship with the coastal environment is epitomized in the traditional fine art of čapac (dugout canoe) carving. Massive, old-growth cedar trees are carefully selected with adherence to cultural protocols that ensure minimal disturbance to the surrounding forest. One tree can be split in half to form two canoes. Their size and shape will be determined by their intended use. The tree might transform into a sturdy whale hunting canoe, sporting a wave breaking bow and painted black to mirror the orca. The other half might become a canoe for trade, boasting a wolf head bow that signals Nuu-chah-nulth arrival to neighbouring villages.

Tla-o-qui-aht is one of the fourteen Nuu-chah-nulth Nations that have lived in deep relationship with the coastal environment since time immemorial. The čapac provided a sturdy companion for harvesting, hunting, traditional whaling, trade, and visiting neighbouring nations. Tla-o-qui-aht Master Carver, Joe Martin, has committed to teaching the next generation of carvers the natural laws, cultural practices, and artistic craftsmanship of this ancient čapac artform. During the 2019-2020 winter season, he mentored six apprentices in the traditional fine art of dugout canoe carving: David Curley, Ken Easton, Gary Martin, Shawn Quick, Stephanie Charleson and Geoffrey Gus.

Apprentices worked closely with Joe to learn the intricate practice of canoe carving which includes masterful technique, as well as spirituality and respect for the land as integral lessons. The Teaching of Natural Laws that surround the process of transforming a cedar tree into a seaworthy canoe are invaluable knowledge gained through apprenticeship. Joe describes how these lessons were passed on to him when he was first learning the art of canoe carving: “My grandfather and my dad told me time and time again that you’re not supposed to cut anything within 100-metres of an eagles nest or a bear den or a wolf den because we have been taught to be respectful. You’re supposed to respect all life. It’s quite a process. It’s not just going into the forest and picking a tree.” Care for the canoe, storage and handling are also an important part of what is passed on.

The central location of the carve, in the Tla-o-qui-aht maintenance yard on Ty-Histanis reserve, and Joe’s generous spirit made it easy for people to stop in to visit, listen and participate while the chips flew.


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