Amid modern building construction, Tlingit carver keeps traditional method alive

Sealaska Heritage Institute is incorporating a traditional Native carving method into the building of the Walter Soboleff Center in Juneau.

Wayne Price is a Tlingit carver from Haines. He’s utilizing a tool his ancestors used thousands of years ago, and he’s keeping the tradition alive — one chip at a time.

Like most construction projects, the building site of the Walter Soboleff Center in downtown Juneau is filled with modern power tools.

But if you walk to one corner of the building, Tlingit carver Wayne Price has been texturing hundreds of board feet of red cedar using just one tool – an adze. To be more precise, it’s an elbow adze that Price made himself.

“The blade is made from a leaf spring out of a truck and the handle is made from the branch of an alder tree and it’s held together by string and a chunk of leather,” Price says.

The handle is about two feet long and he grips it with both hands as he chips the wood.

Price says the string holding the adze together doesn't have any knots. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Price says the string holding the adze together doesn’t have any knots. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“It’s quite heavy. It’s — I don’t know — three pounds, maybe a little more, so it’s pretty heavy to be swinging all day,” he says.

That’s what Price has been doing. Since the beginning of September, Price has been adzing red cedar board after red cedar board, all day long.

“I’m in pretty good shape right now,” he laughs.

The work he’s doing on the board requires Price to read the wood “and spot the knots and see the grain changes and be able to hit it and turn around and go the other way and keep all the adze rows in a straight line,” Price says.

With each swing, he chips off a little piece of cedar, leaving behind a textured finish, the same seen on traditional Tlingit structures and pieces of art.

“When my ancestors, oh so long ago, were able to make the first adze, that was the foundation that gave them the ability to make all the clan houses, all the totems, all the dugout canoes, all the masks, all the art work,” Price says.

Price says the use of an adze is one of the foundations of Tlingit culture and something he’s trying to keep alive. He started using one as a young man. Taught by master carver Nathan Jackson, Price adzed a clan house floor in Ketchikan.

Tlingit carver and artist Wayne Price (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Tlingit carver and artist Wayne Price (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Since then, he’s used the tool on a lot of his work, including 36 totem poles and eight dugout canoes.

“It roughs and shapes and chops and digs and chews all that material out of the way until we get to the hull of the ship,” Price says.

The 680 board feet of red cedar that Price is adzing for the Walter Soboleff Center will be used as columns surrounding the staircases of the four floor building. The heritage, culture and arts center is scheduled to open in May.

“I think if Walter’s looking down, he would be smiling,” Price says. “He would be very supportive of an adventure like this – something that’s old and something that’s new being able to merge together to the benefit of the all the people that are going to come for generations here. They’ll be able to walk up the stairs and be able to see that each one of these marks was made one at a time.”

As he chips away all day long, Price says he’s brought back to the past. He sings Native songs to the beat of the adze, as his ancestors watch over his shoulder making sure he keeps his standards high.

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