June 20, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 24

Carver aims message at youths

Master carver Wayne Price of Haines this week resumed carving a dugout canoe that languished on his studio’s front porch for nearly a decade.

Carver Wayne Price of Haines.

The project is a significant one for Price, as the idea for it came from an experience that changed his life.

Nine years ago, Price was taking a course at the Pilchuk Glass Center near Seattle when Chanupa pipe carrier and carver Joe David took Price to a sweat lodge ceremony. “I just wanted to finish the sweat and go find the party but (David) never left my side; I could not get rid of him.” Price spent the next two weeks with David, alternating sweat lodge sessions with fasting, creating art and, for the first time in 30 years, not drinking.

Price was 15 years old when he had his first drink. “Drinking was a problem right from the very start.” He spent the next three decades as what he calls a “serious alcoholic.”

During a sweat at the end of his second week at Pilchuk, Price had what he calls a vision. “It was as if the Creator as we know it sat down right by me and we had a conversation.”

“I said, ‘What can I do? I am just a carver,’ and all these ideas came in: the creation of a dugout canoe as a healing dugout and (a) healing totem. I asked, ‘What makes a healing totem?’ and the Creator told me that every chip represents a life or a family that has been affected whether by the (Native boarding) schools or by alcohol or drugs. Every chip represents a broken family, a broken home, a broken life, a life taken, a life lost.”

This experience cured him of his alcoholism, Price said. “When I had the vision, the urge to drink was completely lifted away. I am a miracle.”

Since then, Price has been determined to use his artistic talent to reach at-risk populations and teach wellness. “Most people thought I was nuts, but I have never backed off that for one day since the event. What happened in that ceremony is just as clear now as it was then.”

Price’s first attempt to create a “healing canoe” was a failure. The roughed out cedar log reminded him of his unfinished goals.

He restarted the project Monday, with support from the Chilkoot Indian Association. “It is not a lot of money,” said Jake Bell, health specialist with the CIA, who is administering the Department of Justice Tribal Youth Grant that will fund a summer-long carving project open to all local youth 18 and under. “Wayne is donating the use of the shop and his tools and the log. The goal of this is to build momentum.”

Price seems happy to have the support he initially felt that he lacked in his hometown. “Joe Davis told me that my vision was so bright that all dark things were going to grab onto it, to try to keep it from happening. Too true. A lot of dark things happened, but I kept going and going. The dugout on the porch was my first attempt. The money was stolen, the logs were stolen. It took six years from when I had the vision to when I found my way to the Sun Dog studios.”

In 2009, the Sun Dog Carving Studio of Whitehorse, Y.T., raised over $250,000 from the Canadian and Yukon governments, First Nations and local businesses for a youth summer carving program led by Price.

The youths joined Price and a handful of counselors on Egg Island in the Yukon River. They pledged to not drink or take drugs and turned in their phones and electronics before the trip. They spent 10 weeks camping and carving a 30-foot dugout canoe from a giant red cedar log.

“Out of the 19 kids that we took out there, all of them at-risk, some of them homeless, nine are still clean and sober.” Given the difficulty and the expense of treating drug and alcohol abuse and dependency issues, Price feels these are excellent results, despite the hefty price tag of the program.

“Within the prison system, each inmate costs $250,000 each year. Projects like this are an investment in prevention, an investment in changing lives, changing young people’s lives before they become a problem. It is a good investment and I’ve seen it work.”

The Haines Borough Public Library will show a film that documents the project on June 27, and will present a book published in conjunction with the film.

Following the success of the healing canoe project, the Northern Cultural Expressions Society received funding from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee to sponsor Price’s project to create with a group of youth a “healing totem” to honor and commemorate the victims of Indian boarding schools, where abuses occurred.

Despite his success in Canada, he’s disappointed with his inability to find funding for healing projects on this side of the border.

He says he has plenty of commision work, but lacks funding for healing projects he finds more gratifying.

Price feels that part of what he has to offer in his cultural wellness programs is the ability to connect with young people. His peers and colleagues agree. Local artist and carver Greg Horner remembers learning to carve from Price when both were young men.

“Wayne had an obvious natural talent for carving and he was an excellent instructor because he was so patient... Growing up as the second-oldest in a family with 10 kids means that he is good with young people. There is no substitute for that kind of experience.”

Colin Teramura of the Northern Cultural Expressions Society said Price has a “powerful” effect on young people. “He has such a gentle way of teaching and encouraging. Just by being in his presence you strive to be better on artistic and personal levels.”

Price’s father, Warren Davis, was also a carver, and worked at Alaska Indian Arts in 1964-1966, when it was part of a federal job-training effort.

Lee Heinmiller of Alaska Indian Arts said Warren Price was a good carver who didn’t have the free time to develop his talent while working as a longshoreman to support his family. Price recounts that there were a lot of challenges to growing up in a large family. “Generally, my childhood sucked. What I gained from having so many brothers and sisters was a good work ethic. I am not afraid of doing a day’s work for a day’s pay. All the Price clan has that ethic...We all gained that drive.”

With three sons of his own, Price has taken advantage of the past years of sobriety to “square up” with his sons and to provide a better example. “I feel as though I have been able to stop the multi-generational dysfunction. Maybe I didn’t stop it all, but it doesn’t take too much to figure out how much better life without addictions is for the family. What I want for my kids is for them not to ever have to deal with addictions, the same thing I want for all children.”

Price has had several impressive commissions recently, including a series of permanent banners that will be displayed in downtown Juneau along the waterfront, and house posts destined for the new science center at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Price said he is committed to dedicating his talents to cultural wellness programs: “However much effort I wasted on getting drunk, I’ll put that same amount of energy into helping others. If it’s about recovery, I will be there.”

“On the totem pole (in Whitehorse) there is an empty space that represents the future, the story that hasn’t been told yet. At the very top there is the raven... that represents the Creator. And the raven has copper in his beak, that represents the full moon. No matter how dark it is in space, the moon is always bright. That represents hope. . . Standing there with that healing totem. That is so much better than a drink.”