The Healing Canoe Program is a community-engaged art practice focused on the collaborative carving of a cedar dug-out canoe and the sharing of traditional knowledge through ceremony and artistic practice.
The traditional carving of a cedar dugout canoe is a long process during which powerful and sacred transformations take place. As a cedar morphs into a new form of life—from a tree into a log to and ultimately into a canoe—it absorbs and releases the vital energies and spiritual forces of the lives which surround it. As this happens, transformative life-changing processes unfold. More precisely, the Healing Canoe Program focuses on two such transformations.
First, the carving process will cultivate the transformative relation between creative expression and human and non-human well-being. Knowing that the creative process has the potential to bring forms of life closer together and to heal, canoe carving will unfold as an art form, collaborative creative practice, ceremony, medicine, marker of territorial heritage, and traditional medicine.
Second, the carving process will cultivate the transformative relation between creative expression and education. By using traditional tools, applying techniques and lessons passed along by ancestors, sharing stories and songs, and practicing sacred ceremonies, carving will combine creative expression, cultural practice, and collaborative learning focused on Coast Salish teachings.
Art and culture are deeply connected for Coast Salish peoples. Artistic practice is a bond that strengthens individuals and communities, affecting feelings of engagement and belonging. Moreover, artistic processes rooted in respect to the Land can serve as a powerful protective and medicinal force strengthening our relations with the non-human and ancestral world and between Indigenous and non-indigenous people. Through cultural practice, cultural teachings, and ceremony, the Healing Canoe Program will work as such a protective force.
The central teaching of the Healing Canoe Program is that carving is neither an instrumental nor simply an aesthetic process but instead a relational transformation of our place in the world. Every aspect of the carving process contributes to the goal of building healthy relationships with ourselves, others, and the world around us. Such a relational transformation does not begin with the individual artist, but with a recognition of all the lives and energies involved in the creative process.
Community-engaged art recognizes the importance of process and collective participation, as well as the role of art in regenerating and revitalizing community ties. As such, the Healing Canoe Program will not only reinvigorate the cultural tradition of dugout canoe carving, but it will also allow us to share artistic practices and skills, recognize the importance of language, start dialogues about cultural, historical, and environmental issues, and practice ceremony.
The Healing Canoe Program is grounded in deep acknowledgment of all my ancestors and in particular my mentor, the late Master Carver Elmer Sampson, of the Stz’uminus First Nation on southeast Vancouver Island, BC. Elmer dedicated his life to canoe carving, which for him was an expression and enactment of traditional Coast Salish values and spiritual practices. Throughout his life, he inspired local Indigenous youth to compete in traditional racing by gifting his canoes and sharing his knowledge with the younger generation.
My mentor taught me infinitely more than just about carving. He passed along to me Coast Salish values of respect, accountability, commitment, sacrifice, honor, generosity, and above all, love and belonging. These values are not abstractions but rather some of the vital energies embedded into the cedar growing on Coast Salish Land. These are energies that cedar soaks as we live our lives around it, energies which cedar releases as it changes life forms, and ultimately energies that transform us as it undergoes transformations.
To take part in the Healing Canoe Program is to witness such transformations and to find a sense of belonging in the transformative process itself. To this effect, the Healing Canoe Program will not just be a simple opportunity to watch the artist carve. Rather, it will be a collective performance of cultural traditions and an open-ended process of co-creation intended to foster inclusivity, participation, equity, and social and environmental change. In order to facilitate this, some of the activities in which program participants will take part include:
- Forest walks. A forest walk is a way to reflect on our connection to the living things that surround us. During walks, we will talk about medicines from our plant relatives, and about how the forest protects us, feeds us, and gives us tools. The teachings will emphasize how it is our job to take care of the forest for future generations.
- Cedar bark weaving. This traditional art form will be used to fashion rope, bracelets, and headbands. The process of collecting and preparing the bark will also be shared. More advanced cedar weaving techniques, such as those involved in making hats and baskets, will also be taught.
- Songs and stories. To emphasize the relationship of traditional cedar arts within oral culture, we will regularly include songs and stories. Sessions will include both listening to performances of songs and stories and learning about the values and teachings embedded in them.
- Ceremony. The program revolves around the sacredness of ceremony. Through ceremony, we will heal, undergo transformation, cultivate relations, and learn. Ceremonies will include the canoe blessing, steaming, launch and naming.
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