Paddle makers at the One People Canoe Society workshop - Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KSTK
Paddle makers at the One People Canoe Society workshop in 2014 – Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KSTK

Wrangell community members plan to gather together at the high school wood shop this weekend to create two full sets of traditional Tlingit paddles. 

KSTK’s Colette Czarnecki spoke with Ken Hoyt, who is helping put on this event. He is the Cultural Healing Clinical Lead at Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium – or SEARHC – in Wrangell. He said two representatives from One People Canoe Society will be coming to town on Thursday to teach the class.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

They’ll work with us to make two sets of paddles. So one set is about 12 paddles, and then we have a rudder paddle for each of those sets.  So we’ll make 12 Dance paddles, 12 canoe paddles and then we’ll have those for the summer for Celebration.

When is Celebration?

Celebration is every even year and so maybe it started already, in a way we’ve all been preparing, and people are gearing up and working on regalia and working on songs. But it’ll be  the first week of June. I think we’re starting on the fifth with a canoe landing in Juneau. 

Why is this workshop important and can you talk a little bit about the history of the paddle workshop?

It’s been understood as kind of a kickoff for each local canoe group, canoe family. Sometimes people say team, we are trying to get away from always saying team because it’s not a competition. We’d like if Wrangell had a canoe family but this will be a kickoff, like a welcome. It’s open to everybody to come check it out and then from participation in this workshop we’ll see if we can get the people, the enthusiasm, the energy, the vision together in order to paddle to Juneau.

We’re working on cultural healing and, to me, that culture is always going to be part of people’s healing process then and I don’t think there’s a racial or ethnic exclusion to that healing. That is happening across the globe, across the state, and especially in this town. Like a lot of people are recovering from a lot of bad things and some of those things happened way before they were born. But our cultural resurgence we’ve been going through as Lingít people, our cultural survival and cultural revival has mended a lot of hearts and healed a lot of mental wounds. And our culture is always going to be carrying those curative properties, whether it’s our food, our understanding of who we are and how we relate to one another, our language, especially our canoes, every element of our traditional culture, as we understand it, has healthy properties. By participating in it you become healthier, and those cultural teachings could guide a person on a healing journey.

When do you need to know when this is going to happen?

I think in some sense you wouldn’t know until we land if we could do it. 

We have canoes here, we have canoes in our history and in our blood, in our heritage. But we could borrow canoes too. That offer has been made from One People Canoe Society to lend us a canoe for the journey. So that’s the easy part. Finding the canoe is easy. Making the paddles is a little tricky. It takes time. But getting people committed, excited people to go on the journey, that’s the question.

What is expected out of the workshop?

It’s really epic what occurs at these workshops. Making that many paddles in that short amount of time is the result of many people working as a unit. It’s hard not to think of army ants or piranhas, or some large group of animals working as one to accomplish the same task. So we start with red cedar planks on day one and end with instruments of culture and transportation on the end of it. So everybody will be pitching in on every paddle. And I’ll use some unmotorized tools. Some traditional tools are part of it, especially finishing things, but we’ll use just all manner of power tools. One of the gems of Wrangell is this high school shop.

With dance paddles, you can do a lot more than you can with canoe paddles. Canoe paddles are utilitarian, but a dance paddle is aesthetic. So the relief carving, you’d never see that on a real used canoe paddle. You wouldn’t see somebody intentionally putting weaknesses into the design or the structure of their paddle. And there wouldn’t be inlays, but with a dance paddle we could put abalone mother of pearl, copper, human hair, all kinds of different elaborations, shells. Then we could get them real fancy. We have plenty of time before Celebration so we could put the crests on. 

How many people do you hope to show up?

We’ll just see on the day of, but 20 wouldn’t be too many and not everybody can stay for the whole thing. So some people could come in, put in some time, and come in and check it out and breathe some sawdust and do their contribution. But yeah, it’s just open. If anybody wants to learn, they’ll walk away with a really clear understanding of the whole process.

You said anybody can attend the workshop.

I think anyone under 18 is going to need a lot of paperwork and a parent. There’ll be a photo release, media release and then of course, like liability waivers. So we’ll cross those bridges as we get to them. But anyone who is over 18 and has the wherewithal and the ability is welcome. I would like people to sign up and so we have a signup link, the signup link is on social media and there’s a QR code on the grocery store and bulletin boards. From that link you’re able to give us your contact info and then we can get in contact prior to the workshop.

Do people get to keep the paddles?

Absolutely, but there’s a catch. We need the paddles for something. So we’ll all work on all the paddles through the workshop and there’ll be 24 planks and however many people and however many days. And then when those paddles are finally done, they’ll go on a journey, a canoe journey to Celebration or they’ll ride on a ferry and hit the celebration stage. After they’ve served their purpose we’ll figure out what happens to the paddles, where they go and who will be caretakers going forward. One idea that has been really well utilized over the last however many decades is a paddle sponsorship, where the paddles that go on the journeys are a lot more significant than just any old paddle. It’s not just a paddle shaped piece of wood that you can put on your wall but it’s a part of history because it was used in a journey. That paddle had the sweat, blood, the saltwater. Everything from the journey becomes part of it.


People interested in participating in the paddle- making workshop can email Ken at The workshop is Friday to Sunday, from 10am to 5pm. Participants don’t need to commit to the whole weekend.