North Tide Canoe Kwaan of Haines will hold a prominent spot at the dedication of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Center on May 15 in Juneau.

The Tlingit paddling crew will land at Marine Park at 12:30 p.m. to help kick off a traditional ceremony, including dance group performances and a procession to the new $20 million building.

“A little dugout from Haines will represent 10,000 years of (Native) history,” said group leader Wayne Price. “This is very big for us in many, many ways.”

Heritage institute president Rosita Worl said the Haines group was selected partly because of its traditional-style canoe. 

“We were also aware of their commitment to a traditional and healthy lifestyle and thought they would be a great model for our younger generations,” Worl said. Price also did some “superb adzing” on the interior of the building, Worl said.

During a five-day voyage from Haines starting Sunday, Price and six crewmen will don purple headbands and dedicate their paddling to the cause of domestic violence awareness. That’s in line with Price’s assertion that Tlingits are a maritime people and that time on the water “takes care of some of the issues.”

Price is a master totem carver but in the canoe group he’s working mostly with men half his age or younger. Besides carving their own paddles, members help Price build canoes and make some of their own regalia. They pledge to be clean and sober during group activities.

Price said he’s not teaching, as much as he’s allowing Tlingit culture to serve as teacher.

“When we have our culture in our lives, we can deal with the issues in our lives,” he said. Paddling, he said, helps Tlingit men identify with their past as warriors, but also teaches them to relate as members of a team, while connecting to the weather, the environment and their own history. “When you (paddle) through many hours, you feel good.”

Members of the group a year ago completed the 28-foot, traditional dugout canoe, hewn from a red cedar tree. It’s one of only a few vessels like it in Southeast, and the only one that’s in the water, Price said.

The group will be taking no more than five days to make the 103-mile trip from Haines to Juneau, a tight schedule considering there are some exposed spots in between. The Tlingit name for the area between Seduction Point and Eldred Rock means “very rough place,” Price said.

“There’s no Tlingit word for ‘small craft advisory,’” Price said. “They just went.”

The crew will try using a fabric sail to help speed their return trip. Support vessels will accompany the canoe.

Group member James Hart this week was carving a cedar helmet at Price’s Fort Seward workshop. Hart said the group’s trip is a kind of commemoration of a famous potlatch in Sitka in 1904, one of the last traditional gatherings of the era. “Every single canoe that could make it was there.”

At that time, Native rituals and languages were being prohibited and information about the culture was shared for the last time. In the modern era, when linguists are working to preserve Native language, Hart and group leader Price say they’d like to see a reclaiming of Tlingit maritime tradition, including more dugouts and paddlers.

“I think the villages would be into that,” said Price. “It would be great to see. Hopefully, we’re keeping something alive that shouldn’t pass into history.”

The group paddled last year to Juneau and Skagway and at events in Carcross and Whitehorse, Y.T. This year’s schedule includes trips to Native celebrations in Whitehorse and Metlakatla (paddling from Kake).

Members expected to make next week’s trip include Price, Hart, Ted Hart, Rhys Williams, Nels Lynch, Zach James and Rob Martin.