AK: Tlingit carver featured in small-town, large-scale Smithsonian project

Tlingit master carver Wayne Price has a relationship with the ocean and the tides that runs deeper than most.

He carves dugout canoes in Haines and his work and words are set to hit the road in the spring as part of the Smithsonian’s Water/Ways exhibit.

It’s a traveling show from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street designed for rural museums.

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(Photo by Jillian Rogers, KHNS - Haines)
(Photo by Jillian Rogers, KHNS – Haines)

Wayne Price is standing in his home studio, explaining the maze of lines on his wood floor. He uses the lines to measure the canoe he’s working on. His dugout canoes are big – about 30 feet long – and heavy.

The visitor is Smithsonian curatorial assistant Tiffany Cheng. Cheng found Price while looking for an Alaskan for the Water/Ways project through the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Price says he was happy to get involved mostly as a chance to help revive his art form, which he says is dying.

“The dugout canoes have been a big part of that all through 10,000 years of history,” Price said. “We’re in a desperate time right trying to keep that art alive.”

Once Cheng arrived in Haines, She hopped on a local fishing boat with her cameraman to get some shots of Price and his crew paddling one of his prized canoes.

(Photo by Jillian Rogers, KHNS - Haines)
(Photo by Jillian Rogers, KHNS – Haines)

Cheng says Price was an obvious choice for the project.

“I wanted to meet him and talk to him about the craft of dugout canoes and the tradition and connection, the cultural connection to the water here in Alaska,” Cheng said.

Besides Price and his canoes, the project includes a crabber in Louisiana, a shrimp boat captain in Mississippi and a conservationist who works in the Florida Everglades.

The project is a window into people’s lives and a reflection of what water means to them.

“And the goal is not for us to tell the story it’s for them to say it for themselves so that’s our goal for coming out and meeting people like Wayne and hearing from them directly instead of just text on a wall or out of book,” she said.

On her last day in Haines, Cheng was treated to a private singing and drumming performance by Price, Ted Hart and Zachary James.

For Price, sharing his passion comes easily. He enjoys teaching young people in the region how to carve and the significance of dugout canoes. And, he says, taking part in the Water/Ways project is another good way to spread the word about what he refers to as an endangered art. He says the canoes are one more way to foster traditional values.

“The Tlingit people come from the water. We’re people of the tide. We’ve always said when the tide goes out it’s time to go to eat. We gather all our food from the beach or the woods inside the beach,” Price said. “Our whole way of living has been on the water and with the tides.”

Price says the fact that interest in this specialized craft is waning, is simply a sign of the times. But local young people are getting more involved these days, he says, and taking an interest in learning the trade.

The Water/Ways exhibition will launch in May, 2016, in Florida, Idaho and Illinois first. The project will travel to various small towns across the U.S. for six years.