'It's like swinging a golf club'

Two men have been commissioned by Indian band to carve a dugout canoe using traditional Secwepemc methods

Swing. Chip. Swing. Chip. Swing. Chip.

With each swing of the carving tool, Sisiaskit Jules removed one more small piece of wood from the felled cottonwood tree.

The 34-year-old and his relative, Mike Jules, 49, have repeated the motion for hours at a time during the last two weeks, using a tool called an adze to turn the heavy, wet log into a two-metre-long canoe.

"It's like swinging a golf club," Mike said as he chipped another strip from the wood.

The men set up near the Tk'emlups Indian Band's powwow grounds on April 4. The log was part of a cottonwood that once stood near the Halston Bridge.

Sisiaskit and Mike were commissioned by the band to carve a dugout canoe using traditional Secwepemc methods. Sisiaskit said the canoe and a fish trap made from willow branches will eventually be on display at Kamloops Airport.

John Jules, who died of cancer last year, organized the project. Sisiaskit said his death delayed the start of the project until earlier this month.

But piles of wood chips around the canoe show how quickly the men have progressed in a short period of time.

Mike and Sisiaskit were recruited because of their knowledge of canoe-making. The men were taught in the traditional way by grandparents or elders, who had the methods passed down to them.

Mike said there are no blueprints. He was told how to make a canoe as a boy and then practised the teachings.

"You just chip away at it. You take your time," he said.

Sisiaskit and Mike are among the few in the band who know how to make dugout canoes. When the residential school was set up at Tk'emlups, many First Nations were forced to leave traditional ways behind.

"They wanted us to adapt and change to the society we have today," said Sisiaskit. "There's only a few of us carrying the knowledge. It's very important to our people to keep passing it along."

He and Mike visualized the canoe before they began carving, using the base of the log as the back of the canoe, the top the front. Then they went to work.

Chip. Chip. Chip.

Slowly, the canoe took shape. The men carved out the middle of the log, which was heavy with moisture. As the days passed, the cottonwood dried out.

"It's a good stress reliever," Sisiaskit said of the carving.

He said cottonwood becomes quite light when it dries, which is why the wood is used. Other bands use birch trees for canoes.

More than 45 kilograms of wood will be removed from the log by the time the carving is complete. The inside will be flattened out and filled with water, which will be heated with sweat rocks gathered from Dead Man's Creek, where the stones are traditionally gathered.

Sisiaskit said the boiled water will take what pitch is left in the wood and seal any holes. It will also make it easier to pry back the sides and widen the seating area.

The men will take pitch from a freshly fallen tree, heat it and smear it over the outside of the canoe as a seal against water.

"Then we bless it," said Sisiaskit. "We need to make sure it's in a good and proper way so it's safe."

But will it float?

"Let's hope so," said Mike.

It will probably take another week before the canoe is finished and delivered to Fulton Field. The key is not to rush and ensure the work is done properly.

Kamloops Airport manager Fred Legace said the canoe and fish trap will be a nice addition to the pictographs, woven walls, coyote rock and Secwepemc prayer already on display at the terminal.

"I'm really looking forward to having it," he said. "I think people in Kamloops don't get enough exposure to the symbols of the Secwepemc people. They are our next-door neighbours."

Sisiaskit and Mike have carved five canoes between them. Three are on display at the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park.


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