Carving work continues on the final beams meant for the ongoing construction of the Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell. KSTK’s Ariel Van Cleave recently visited the carving shed and filed this report.
You can hear the sound of a blade meeting wood coming from a large shed in downtown Wrangell. Two women are busy working on long, rectangular beams of red cedar with adzes, which is an axlike tool that’s shaped a bit like a curved “L”. Susie Kasinger and Linda Churchill have been adzing since last year for the ongoing construction of Chief Shakes Tribal House. The two are finishing work on the last beams which will be used to form the fire pit. The carving shed itself is about the length of a barge container and as wide as about two. The floor is covered in pieces of wood and the whole area is coated with a rich, sweet smell. Kasinger said she has the scent of cedar on her clothes and skin after she’s put in her eight-hour workday. She explains adzing is a slow process of taking small notches out of the beams while following the grain of the wood.
“The rows are supposed to be between a quarter and a half-inch wide. And you try to just follow the row down and keep your lines. That’s a really big challenge is we try to keep the lines straight. It’s getting a lot easier now, now that we’re almost done,” she said.
It’s physically straining work. Both note the muscles in their forearms have gotten bigger and they say their hands have grown stiffer since they began about a year ago. The women kneel on the boards or stand on top or beside them with their hand tools. Because of the shape of the adze, the two actually swing the blade toward their bodies to make their notches. Churchill points out it can get a little dangerous.
“Last year I jumped over a timber and threw my knee right into the adze and scared the heck out of me. Cut right through my pants, cut my kneecap right smack man. I was lucky, it didn’t hurt, it didn’t cause any permanent damage. I didn’t tell anyone, I just ran to the bathroom. I was too scared… shock myself,” she said.
She said her father was a carver, and she is glad to be following in the family tradition. Kasinger’s interest in carving first started when she was a teenager and took a class with Wrangell’s Johnson O’Malley program. It’s historic that Kasinger and Churchill are taking part in the effort because typically women have not been allowed to do this kind of work. Churchill said the Tlingit men did not allow women to touch carving tools because women were perceived to have too much power, which could be transferred into the tools. Both Churchill and Kasinger have plans to continue honing their carving skills even after adzing is complete by apprenticing in February with master carver Steve Brown. He will be carving the three-dimensional bear screen for the house.
“We learned specifically for this, but we’ve both wanted to carve wood forever. And we just gotta follow the right path, we’re going down the right path,” Kasinger said.
Churchill and Kasinger said the next step is to clean up the traditional lanterns and other artifacts found in the house. Both said they are proud to be taking part in the project and are looking forward to the re-dedication ceremony, which is set for May of next year.