Master carver currently in residence at Sitka National Historical Park's Visitor Center.
Steve Brown has been carving canoes for almost half a century, having completed 13 canoes since he began honing his craft in 1973. The challenge Brown gave himself was to mimic as closely as possible the 19th century masters of the art form. Dugout canoes have long been an essential component of native peoples, and Brown honors their tradition to give back what his own culture took away. As a non-native carver, Brown aims to preserve the Southeast Alaska native culture and pass their traditions on to future generations by including native apprentices in his projects.
How did you get started with carving canoes?
I became interested in the arts and culture of the Northwest coast as a teenager growing up in Seattle. By the time I was a student at the University of Washington (beginning in 1968), Bill Holm, who had been a friend and mentor of mine for several years, offered me a job at the Burke Museum. Holm believes in the axiom that ‘if you really want to learn about an object, then make one’. This can lead to insights far beyond the level that mere observation makes possible, and has the power to put one in contact with the continuum of craftspeople who developed said object through time and history. Holm had carved two canoes by the time I went to work at the Burke, and this opened my mind to the notion that it could still be done, and that a big canoe is a great sort of thing to create. I studied the historical models and full-size canoes in Burke’s collection, as well as examples in other museums like the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, and other surviving canoes from the time of the old masters of the art form. I carved my first large canoe, 23 feet long, in 1973. The canoe was for my own use, but the project was recorded in photos and film for the Burke Museum’s historical archive. That canoe was fairly successful as a watercraft. Friends and I paddled it many miles in the San Juan Islands and in the waters off Tofino, British Columbia. But it also taught me that I had more to learn about the subject. This led me to further research as part of an abiding interest in the subject that continues today.
Where are your works displayed?
As a non-native carver, I have been privileged to work on canoe projects in a number of native communities, and these vessels form the greatest number of those I’ve made over the last 40-plus years. Working with a group of five young Makah men who were interested in learning canoe work, we carved the four complete canoes that have been on display in the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, Wash., since it opened in 1979. Having the chance to make four canoes in a row, from 10, 17, 25, and 32 feet, gave us a great learning opportunity.
In 1983, I was commissioned to carve a canoe for the Metlakatla Tsimshian community located on Annette Island, Southeast Alaska. A young Tlingit artist named Will Burkhart and I carved a 25-foot canoe that, when not in use for some ceremonial purpose, is displayed in the Tribal House at Metlakatla. Tlingit apprentice Mick Beasley and I carved two Spruce canoes. One is on display where it was carved in the Glacier Bay National Monument at Bartlett Cove in 1987, and the other was carved in the Tlingit village of Hoonah, on Chichagof Island, in 1988. Mick and I worked with Tlingit elder George Dalton, who wanted to see Hoonahstyle sea otter hunting canoes made the way his father had done in the early 1900s, using no power tools. So we used only hand tools on both these canoes.
A canoe-making workshop in 1990 at the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, Alaska, yielded a 14-foot canoe, made as a workshop project with a group of five native helpers. It was launched on the afternoon of the eighth day of work. Tlingit carvers Wayne Price, Israel Shotridge, and Gary Stevens assisted in carving a 20-foot canoe in 1997 in Wrangell, Alaska, where it is currently displayed within the Chief Shakes Tribal House at the center of the harbor. The Chilkat Tlingit v illage of Klukwan commissioned a canoe that was carved with a group of ten helpers from the community. The 37-foot Head Canoe project began in 2008 and was formally dedicated in 2010. It will be displayed in the new Chilkat Heritage Center Museum, which opened in May 2016. The 28-foot canoe being carved by four guys with my help at the Sitka National Historical Park will be displayed there when it is finished.
What does it mean to be a master carver?
Well, the term “master carver” gets tossed around a lot these days, and probably far more than it should be. I don’t consider myself a master of this art form, though I have a good deal of experience in the 13 canoes I’ve made since 1973. The old historical canoes that have survived intact or in old photographs were all made to an amazingly consistent standard of form and craftsmanship. The only true masters of this art form were the ones who made those and the many precise model canoes extant, thereby passing the ‘blueprints’ for these vessels on to the present day. They had learned by the old master and apprentice system, which survived intact for generations up into the early 20th century. Few people if anyone living today have come close to equaling that level of expertise. Since 1989 a great number of new canoes have been created by carvers from most if not all of the Northwest Coast First Nations, and many of these are very good examples that aspire to the old tradition. There is simply so much, however, that the old timers incorporated into their work — generations of experience designing, carving, steaming-out, and finishing those beautiful and seaworthy vessels — that it’s difficult for anyone today to pick all that up on the first or even successive attempts. I like to think I’ve been getting closer to that standard with every canoe I’ve made, but I don’t feel I’ve achieved it yet. The real masters set the bar very high.
What does the canoe represent to the Tlingit people?
That is difficult for an outsider like myself to fully express, it is so entwined with the native identity and experience. I gather, though, from much listening to knowledgeable native speakers on the subject, that canoes were in may ways the center of the indigenous cultures. It was their magic carpet, their means of moving freight, their platform for hunting, gathering, and journeying to seasonal food processing sites that were essential for survival. In short, without seaworthy canoes, the Northwest Coast cultures may never have developed into the grand, successful cultures that they became.
When will this particular canoe be completed, and what is in store for it upon completion? Can you tell us a bit about the team of carvers you’re working with on your current project?
The four carvers I’m working with in Sitka all have a great deal of carving experience in several different mediums, though this is the first canoe for all of them. TJ Young is Haida, down from his home in Anchorage for the project. He’s the full-timer. Jerrod and Nick Galanin are from an artistic Tlingit family in Sitka. Their uncle is Will Burkhart, who worked with me in Metlakatla, and carved a 35-foot canoe for Sitka in 1998. Tommy Joseph grew up in Ketchikan and has worked as a totem carver and teacher in Sitka for about 30 years. They’re all great guys to work with, and we’re planning to have the canoe in the water in June. This will leave enough time for a group of young people in Sitka, yet to be identified, to get to know the canoe prior to paddling it part of the way to Glacier Bay for the dedication of the new Hoonah Tlingit clan house recently constructed there, which is in late August.
Do you go out on the canoes once you finish carving them? Are you a boater yourself?
I have paddled all of the canoes I’ve made at least once, for the trial runs, and some of them for additional longer journeys. I paddled and sailed in my first canoe and Bill Holm’s 35-foot canoe for many miles. My canoe was destroyed in a storm in 1977. The 25-foot seal-hunting canoe in Neah Bay, the first one we made there, was paddled and sailed by five of us north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the village of Pacheenaht, at the head of Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. I believe that may have been the first international canoe journey in modern times. We visited there with Kweesto, chief of the Pacheenahts, who two years before, at 98, had carved a canoe that’s in Fort Rodd Hill Park west of Victoria, B.C. When asked what he thought of our canoe, he said, ‘It’ll pass for a canoe.’ We thought that was pretty good.