Chief Ray Natraoro knows full well there’s no such thing as a perfect tree.
“Just like a human being,” says the seventh-generation Master Carver. “In every tree there are flaws. So there’s dry rot, there’s knot holes, there’s cracks, those sorts of things.”
Through the painstaking process of carving a canoe, something the Squamish Nation carver has been doing for upwards of a quarter-century now, the tree and its imperfections are transformed, given fresh meaning, and imbued with new life.
“We always talk about how when a canoe is finished, it’s not the end. It’s only the beginning of the journey,” says Natraoro. “These canoes will last 100 years or so if we take care of them. They’ll outlive all of us.”
It’s an apt metaphor for Truth and Reconciliation. Just like carving a canoe, this country’s historical blemishes cannot be quickly glossed over; it will take time, discipline, and dedication to right our canoe onto its correct path, and, if approached the right way, the impacts from the work we put in now will live on for generations to come. That’s what makes the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre’s (SLCC) months-long Community Reconciliation Canoe project so meaningful.
Since April, Natraoro (Ses Siyam) and his two apprentices, SLCC Cultural Ambassadors Brandon Hall from the Squamish Nation and Q’áwam’ Redmond Andrews from the Lil’wat Nation, have been working on a 30-foot dugout canoe at the museum, while inviting guests to try their hand at carving and take home the resulting cedar shavings. Once completed, the finished canoe will represent the culmination of countless hands’ efforts, from First Nations elders to longtime locals and visitors from near and far.
Natraoro says it has been an illuminating yet challenging process, as he and his apprentices have shared their story with the wider world coming through the museum.
“It’s been challenging, just because of the idea and perception of Indigenous people. Because we use modern tools and wear modern clothes, some people look at us as if we’re not authentic Indigenous people. It’s been mostly people coming from the airport making those kinds of statements,” he relays. “I think this is a start, a beginning of Truth and Reconciliation, to tell our story of what happened to us. We know our history and we can tell it very capably. It’s a start, and when we start paving these new in-roads, there’s going to be pitfalls. But just being able to be here and represent our people, our ancestors, is a great start.”
On the day I meet with Natraoro and Andrews, the canoe is about 60-per-cent finished, and the carvers are in the process of sanding it down to ready it for steaming. After that, they will add about six inches of water, heated by lava rocks, which will soften the canoe’s wood, allowing the sides to stretch open so “the belly will drop,” as Natraoro puts it.
“This is what we did before contact and this is still what we do today. It’s the same techniques we used, just with modern tools to speed up the process,” he adds, explaining that carvers today have switched from traditional jade and obsidian tools to metal.
Natraoro, who counts Squamish/Coast Salish heritage, along with Tlingit and Tutchose, is one of only a handful of carvers from the Northwest Coast with such a deep well of knowledge of dugout canoes. Many of his carvings can today be found in the SLCC, including the Xaays Canoe in the museum’s Great Hall, a 40-foot oceangoing canoe made from a single log in the Squamish Nation “hunting style”—a style that hadn’t been carved for a century until Natraoro ushered it back.
Natraoro has also spread his deep well of knowledge to other Nations across the Pacific Northwest, playing an instrumental role in revitalizing canoe carving across a number of Indigenous communities after Canada’s potlach ban effectively dismantled the tradition for close to seven decades. (As a way to get around the prohibition on cultural activities, many Nations began presenting canoe racing as a sport, which convinced the heavy-handed colonizers of the day to permit carving to continue in some form.)
“It’s very gratifying to see that spark of interest in wanting traditional canoes in communities again. I told these young apprentices that if canoe carving was easy, everybody would be doing it,” Natraoro says. “I love to see a tree that was dead and has been taken down, carved, and now it’s a vessel moving through the water. Not only that, but we’re being reconnected in our waterways, the highways of our ancestors, to other Nations. It’s bringing a lot of Nations back together, understanding the kinship ties and the history.”
For Andrews, the Lil’wat apprentice, getting the opportunity to learn from Natraoro has been especially meaningful, given the master carver also taught Andrews’ late father, Bruce Edmonds, whose work adorns the SLCC as well as the front doors of the Whistler Olympic Park day lodge.
“It’s been amazing hearing some of the similarities I have with my late father,” Andrews says. “Apparently, just like my father, one of the first things I grab a lot of the times is the broom in order to clean up around the workspace. There’s that. Also, my humour, my little random jokes I would say here and there.”
Andrews is also heartened by the opportunity to exchange cultural knowledge with his neighbouring Nation, and bring back the skills he’s learned to the Lil’wat people, who, being of an interior Nation, don’t have the same experience with oceangoing canoes as the Squamish do. In fact, Andrews and Hall have gotten to apply the lessons they’ve learned to a second, smaller canoe they’ve also been carving this summer, which is more in line with the traditional Lil’wat style.
“The Lil’wat, we have three designs, and the Squamish, they have those three designs plus an extra four designs because of the bigger waters around them,” Andrews notes.
Along with the practical skills gained, the process of carving the canoes has come with some significant personal insights for the young apprentice as well.
“I’m learning a lot more about when to pick up the pace and when to slow it down,” he explains. “So when you start out, you normally want to start out super-fast and get a lot of the meat in the middle hollowed out really quickly. Then when you get to the final touches, you want to take your time and make sure it’s perfected to the best of your abilities. It’s pretty much making your name. The better work you do, the more your name will be recognized through many different projects.”
The Community Reconciliation Canoe project was funded with support from the BC Arts Council and the Resort Municipality of Whistler, as well as a $220,500 investment from the Pacific Development Agency of Canada.
Along with the public carving, guests can take in the SLCC’s “Paddling through the Nations” tour, a guided journey led by a Cultural Ambassador that includes a drum song and storytelling showcasing historic canoes from both the Squamish and Lil’wat. The tours run Wednesday through Sunday until Sept. 4.