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Ketchikan artist awarded grant to carve canoe

Nahaan sings and drums during the recent dedication of the second Salmon Run bus. He has been awarded a $7,500 project grant to carve a red cedar canoe.

A Native artist in Ketchikan has been awarded a $7,500 project grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to carve a traditional red-cedar canoe.

Nahaan, who goes by one name, said the canoe project was inspired by his ancestors, and their traditional mode of transportation. Nahaan grew up in Washington State, where he participated in Tribal Canoe Journeys.

“Down there, there’s a hundred canoes that will paddle in the water at the same time, each represents their own tribe and their own songs, their own protocols an languages, and it really empowers the youth,” he said. “I really wanted to see that for the community here in Ketchikan, Saxman and Prince of Wales.”

He said the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council encouraged him to apply for the grant, and he’s honored to be selected.

It will take a while to get a finished canoe, and the first step is to find a tree, either from private land or the Forest Service. Once the tree is down, the log will be taken to the Saxman carving shed, and at that point, Nahaan hopes to make it a community project.

“There’s going to be a lot of basic adzing and that sort of thing,” he said. “That can be done by a lot of different people.”

Nahaan said this canoe will be his first full-size carving project, so it will be a learning process for him, too. He’s working with master carver Nathan Jackson to create a model-size canoe.

Art has been a constant part of Nahaan’s life.

“Rick and Mick Beasley, they used to do designs and get them blown up on large sheets of paper,” he said. “I remember as a kid, having those all the time. They’d be under my bed, and I’d get them out and fill in the black, and fill in the red.”

But, he said, he became truly serious about Native art a few years ago, when he started working on designs for tattoos. That heightened his interest in the art form, and then he decided to move to Juneau to study the Tlingit language and culture.

When asked to introduce himself, he answers in the traditional way.

After Juneau, he moved to Ketchikan to be with his father, Roger Alexander, and continue learning about the culture. He met Nathan Jackson, and was able to get an apprenticeship with the carver.

Nahaan’s Native culture is, and always has been, an important element in his life. The canoe project is part of reclaiming his identity as an Alaska Native.

The carving part of the project should start in the next couple of months, and when it’s done, he hopes to paddle the vessel locally, before taking it on longer trips, and to neighboring communities for totem raisings or other events.

“The waters are the highways of our ancestors, and their voices are still echoing throughout the water,” he said. “We go out and listen to them, and we’re able to receive some healing from that.”

The canoe project was one of 25 project grants awarded earlier this month by the Rasmuson Foundation.

Ketchikan carver Norman Jackson also was recognized by the Rasmuson Foundation, with his second $18,000 individual artist fellowship. Through the grant, he plans to collaborate with Maori artists for an exhibit in New Zealand next year.

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