Latiesha Coulineur

Latiesha Coulineur

First Nations youth set to embark on tribal journey

Students carve paddles for five-day voyage through Salish Sea

It was too quiet to know there was a group of youth toiling away in the workshop behind the Victoria Native Friendship Centre on Sunday afternoon.

But there, under the same open-ended tent where all three of the centre’s totem poles were created, sat a focused group of First Nations youth aged 12 to 24 from the centre’s Sacred Wolf Canoe Family. The soon-to-be paddlers whittled away on an unfinished cord of yellow cedar, one finger-length shaving at a time, until the paddles began to take shape.

Some of the carvers found a zone of peace with earbuds pumping their favourite tunes while they pulled the hook knife across the cedar paddle. Others were second guessing the quality of their work, while some were just trying not to cut themselves.

The purpose of the exercise is to hand-carve the very paddles which will pull the group’s canoe on a five-day Tribal Journey through the Salish Sea (Puget Sound), from Suquamish to Nisqually in Washington, July 26 to 31. 

“When the group paddles there will be 15 in the canoe plus a skip, Fred Roland from Cowichan,” said Nicole Mendryk, co-ordinator of the Sacred Wolf Canoe Family.

“Five more will be in a support boat as the team of 20 paddlers will take turns. We also have a landing crew who will drive ahead and ready the tents each night,” Mendryk added.

Many tribes will be represented on the journey, from all along the coast of Washington and B.C. The Sacred Wolf Canoe Family might be the most diverse, as the Friendship Centre is for all aboriginals. The paddle is based on Sutherland’s Nuu-chah-nulth tradition, but the Sacred Wolf paddlers are from as far as Tsimshian, Cree and Inuit territory.

“This group has never carved and they are learning the hard way,” said First Nations master carver Moy Sutherland.

The tools are handmade by Metchosin blacksmith Jake James, inspired and based on traditional Northwest First Nations carving utensils. They’re sharp, and the carving isn’t easy.

A quick look around the tent reveals a bandage, or two, on nearly every hand. Sutherland bears a fresh wound on his left hand from a table saw, and callouses that would make a fisherman jealous.

It’s the latest project led by Sutherland, the Gordon Head raised 42-year-old, who sat at the centre of the tent and pencilled guidelines on the face of each paddle blade. Last month Sutherland and the youth of the Friendship Centre’s Eagle program completed a 4.5-month project to carve a totem pole representing the Nuu-chah-nulth nation.

Sutherland, with the help of mentoring carvers Travis Peal and Dawson Matilpi, prepared the paddles to a basic shape.

Cheyenne Allick (inset photo) is documenting the paddle carving and canoeing trip for Grade 11 school credit at Belmont secondary. However, on Sunday she wasn’t without her own struggles with the hook knife.

“It’s fulfilling but it’s hard work, you do have to be careful not to cut yourself,” Allick said. “I’m pulling through.”

Sunday was Day 2 of the two-day carving course at the Victoria Friendship Native Centre. The group will finish them during another weekend in May.