Tlingit canoe makes maiden voyage ... to the Smithsonian

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WASHINGTON - A traditional Tlingit dugout canoe made by contemporary Indians sailed grandly through gleaming Potomac waters in a ceremony celebrating its forthcoming inclusion in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The June 19 event was attended by a group of Tlingit tribal members young and old who were overjoyed to explain the significance of their contribution.

''I just love it when people are able to learn about us,'' said Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, an organization devoted to recognizing Natives of southeast Alaska. Through her work at the institute, Worl was able to donate an old-growth red cedar tree for the creation of the canoe.

''This canoe will represent our people here in D.C., where so many things happen that affect our daily lives,'' said Worl, a founding board member of the National Museum of the American Indian. ''And this will help people to know a little bit more about who we really are.''

Eight younger tribal members helped a crew of Smithsonian staff paddle the boat into the river off the nation's capital in both a symbolic recreation of the historic journeys of their ancestors and in a nod to the tribe's continued devotion to seafaring life.

''Seeing our young people with pride in their faces as they paddled was the greatest joy,'' reflected Worl, whose son was one of the paddlers. ''It was really a memorable moment.''

During the launch, Clarence Jackson, a Tlingit elder and chairman of the Council of Traditional Scholars, led a formal blessing and naming ceremony. In the ways of Native oratory, he told a circular story about how the canoe serves as a reminder of the pride his tribe has for its lands, water and ancestors.

Brothers Doug and Brian Chilton, with assistance from artisan Duane Bosch and other helpers, hand carved the 26-foot canoe over the course of 11 months. Doug had helped carve a few other canoes in the past, and he soon plans to create one to sail in a canoe race that will take place in Washington state and Canada later this year.

Doug, who served as the lead carver, said the experience of seeing the boat launch was ''amazing.''

''To have a piece of our history immortalized at one of the biggest museums in the world is truly humbling. It's just overwhelming.''

Another overwhelming experience occurred when the log for the canoe first arrived in Juneau for carving, and Doug noticed a raven sitting in a nearby tree with a wing that hadn't healed properly. Later, when the canoe was moved to a far-away storage building, he noticed another raven watching over. Interestingly, that bird, too, had a wing that hadn't healed properly.

''To think that the same bird visited the two locations kind of makes you think about the ancestors,'' he said. Appropriately, the vessel was ceremonially named the Raven Canoe by Tlingit members, and it will retain the moniker at the Smithsonian.

Doug and his co-creators ultimately chose to paint the canoe black with a carved raven figurehead featuring red accents. In its beak, the raven figurehead holds a copper disk that represents the sun because, in Tlingit folklore, it was Raven who stole sunlight and brought it to the world for humans. He said that many tribes throughout the Northwest coast share similar stories about the raven that have been passed down through the generations.

Stephen Loring, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, said that he and other anthropologists were adamant that the institute's soon-to-open Ocean Hall highlight the ''incredible impact the world's oceans have had on human destiny.''

''We wanted to get away from putting up just another old boat,'' he said. ''I'm afraid too often people come to a museum and sort of see people frozen in time.''

Loring said it was a top priority to illustrate via the canoe that Native cultures are ''thriving and intact.''

Worl said she's happy to see that more Smithsonian officials are opening their eyes to the fact that Natives are not a relic of the past. ''I think that 'natural history' is trying to learn from the efforts at the National Museum of the American Indian.''

Doug also said he was very impressed that Loring ''went to bat'' to get a new canoe exhibited, rather than featuring an old one.

''He really pushed to have a modern representation of our traditional culture. It's always nice to learn that someone who's an anthropologist insisted on showing our culture is still alive and still thriving.''

The canoe is expected to be hung in July in the Ocean Hall alongside a life-sized model of an endangered North Atlantic right whale. Below the canoe, a changing display will be featured explaining the various cultures of indigenous people of the North Pacific.

The general public will first see the Raven Canoe Sept. 27, when the Ocean Hall officially opens. A contingent of Tlingit members is expected to be on hand that day as well.