Cottonwood Canoe Installation

Led by the UNBC Arts Council and the First Nations Studies Department

Canoe carving

UNBC’s commitment to First Nations culture and tradition led to two remarkable First Nations Studies classes: FNST 284 Dakelh Studies in winter 2013, and then FNST 298/301, making a Cottonwood Canoe in summer 2013. The Dugout Cottonwood Canoe (Ts’i) courses focused on traditional and contemporary forms and processes for creating and carving of a traditional dugout cottonwood canoe. Through participating in the Dugout Cottonwood Canoe project students developed an understanding of local Lheidli T’enneh First Nations traditions. The culmination of the summer   FNST 298/301 -  Making a Cottonwood Canoe course was the completion of a cottonwood canoe made from scratch which was launched into the Nechako River at the Lhezbaoonicheck reserve where the course took place. Robert Frederick said this was the first time a cottonwood canoe had been launched in 60 years. 

The canoe from the first course, FNST 284, has been put on permanent display at UNBC, as one of the 25th Anniversary legacy projects. This canoe had one side carved by Lheidli Elder Robert Frederick before it was gifted to UNBC and the second side was carved by the students in the winter 2013 Cottonwood Canoe course after the students had made a rubbing to transfer the traditional story of the salmon that Robert Frederick had carved on one side of the canoe onto the second side. The carvings on the canoe tell the Lheidli traditional story of the salmon. The following description was provided by UNBC First Nations Studies Professor Dr. Antonia Mills:

"A salmon is carved at the back being propelled by water, in the center is Eustace and at the front of the canoe is Raven with a branch of huckleberries in his beak. 

A brief summary of the traditional story says that Eustace time and time again got the salmon bones caught in his hair inside the long house where he had hung the salmon for drying. He got annoyed and flung the drying salmon down on the ground in anger, and all the salmon then became alive and slithered off and returned to the river. Then deep, deep snow surrounded the longhouse where Eustace barely survived by eating the last remains of fish left on the fish drying poles. Raven saw that when spring came the longhouse was still covered with snow. He told Eustace to come out but Eustace thought it was still winter. Raven brought a branch of huckleberries to show Eustace that winter was over but Raven ate the berries before he got back to the longhouse. Raven ate all the berries the second time he tried to bring huckleberries and finally the third time he arrived with huckleberries to show Eustace that it was spring/summer."

This project enabled:

  • A location for permanent display of the canoe to be created
  • Construction of a special base for the canoe 
  • Creation of audio-visual and photographic installations providing footage and imagery of the canoe carving, the courses involved, statements by artists, and story of the carvings
  • An opening reception to unveil the permanent installation and celebrate the artistic and cultural life of Northern BC

The project also enabled the commission of a Raven Mask by Ron Sebastian, a famed Gitxsan artist and carver of UNBC’s Ceremonial Chairs and Talking Stick. 

The canoe and mask can be viewed in their permanent location in the Rotunda Gallery.