George Lucas Educational Foundation

Students Carve Cultural Connections -- and a Canoe

An extraordinary experience-based education project enables a group of seventh-grade students in Washington to live their Native American culture history curriculum. Read the article.
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Students Carve Cultural Connections -- and a Canoe (Transcript)

You have a visitor today. Awesome.

Narrator: Any class, especially one dedicated to history and culture, can benefit from an encounter with a visiting expert.

Saaduuts Peele: My name's Saaduuts. I come from the Haida Tribe. I come from the Edenshaw family.

Narrator: For many of these students at Seattle's AS-1 school, interacting with this Native American would teach them more than just a lesson in history.

Saaduuts Peele: The chiefs were allowed masks -- to wear masks. Other people cannot wear masks because they want to or you have to have permission, and it's not like Halloween or anything. We put the mask on so we could see what's in the wood.

Narrator: A master carver from the Alaskan village of Hydaburg, Saaduuts had a vision.

Saaduuts Peele: So, when we finish this, it should be able to last 100 years.

Narrator: He would transform a six-ton cedar log into a traditional voyaging canoe with help from the seventh-graders from AS-1. As part of their history and culture class, the students would spend two school-day mornings each month and volunteer on weekends to work on the canoe at Seattle Center for Wooden Boats in a project that would eventually span three years.

Melissa Koch: The biggest challenge was for the children to learn about creating something from a dream or a vision into reality and taking time to live through a process--

Saaduuts Peele: I'm going to have you start here, and this is in here--

Melissa Koch: --that if you don't give up and you keep on working every day in a disciplined fashion and together as community that you can complete something absolutely wonderful.

Saaduuts Peele: I never doubted the kids. The teaching's about having confidence, not about ever doubting them. And I let them use all the tools, heavy, the sledgehammers, wedges, so that they could meet the challenges.

Betsy Davis: It's really exciting to be able to say yes to kids. Yes, you can go out in the boat. Yes, you can steer the boat. Yes, you can hold this sharp tool and cut wood with it on a canoe or on a pond boat. I've seen the kids come down from Alternative School 1. Sometimes they might be a bit tentative in the early part of the morning, but then they start getting into it and they start becoming really engaged with each other, and they collaborate and they laugh. And when they get something accomplished, there's just a great shine in their smile.

Ron Snyder: And then when you make your stroke, you'll come back and rest it on your lap.

Narrator: Former AS-1 Principal Ron Snyder helped launch the canoe project.

Ron Snyder: It's important as warriors to look good, because that's who you are when you paddle that canoe. The canoe us a historical vehicle, and it often went on adventures, and you will present yourself as warriors, as a proud people.

Narrator: An advocate of expeditionary learning, Snyder believes that there's no substitute for hands-on lessons.

Ron Snyder: Experience-based education sticks. You really find out not about some twisted figment of history but about you, yourself and your relationship to your history.

They chose to tap their paddles in synchronized sound motion to what Saaduuts was singing on the dock as the Haida paddle song.

That came from their heart, from their rhythm. They really got it, how sharp they looked, how powerful they were, and there was a tremendous aura of pride in the canoe.

Tell me what it felt like to paddle.

It was really moving, because you were all paddling at the same time and then when you're coming back, we would paddle and then hit our paddles against the side when we rested. And there was this rhythm to it and it sounded almost like music, and--

Narrator: As the canoe neared completion, teachers, parents and students prepared for a trip to Alaska to present their canoe to the Haida Tribe.

So, you're all going to be able to paddle it, we hope, but you can't do that unless you pass the float test and the capsize test.

Narrator: In April of 2004 the AS-1 group traveled to the village of Hydaburg in southeastern Alaska. In culmination of their three-year effort, they paddled their canoe ashore and presented it as a gift to the community.

Saaduuts Peele: It made my heart cry with joy to see the connection, the cultural connection when my people are standing on the beach waiting to receive the canoe. It touched everybody on both sides of the connection, and that's what the whole thing is about.

Susan Hoyt: I just loved the idea that the kids could study Northwest Native canoe culture and the importance of the canoe, not just from textbooks, not just from lectures but actually meet people, get into the culture, produce a canoe. So that's really an integrated form of learning.

Saaduuts Peele: And if everybody lift together and help, it's going to work good. No rushing. If there's anything -- everybody set it down together, all right? One, two, three. Hoo. Hoo.

Narrator: In 2005 the AS-1 community carved a second canoe and donated it to another Alaskan village, and Seattle's cultural carving connection continues with two more canoes now under construction.

Lisa Dunton: It was just so great to be part of this spirit, where everybody was coming together, creating this thing. We just don’t get much of an opportunity to do things like that in the world today, and so it was -- it went beyond the school. It stretched out into the bigger community, so it was a really, really special thing.

Saaduuts Peele: Through the eyes of the child, change will come if we teach him, if we take the time to teach him. They're hungry for this new way. It's a new but old way. We can't keep them on the side and expect them to learn. They have to have hands on, be part of it, and too much of the things that are going on now is we're cutting too many things out of the children's life: working with their hands and their mind and their spirit.

We could tell the story, but if they practice the story and do a hands-on, it's a living story, and that's why they want to be here and be part of it.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Stacy Bloom
  • Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Karen Sutherland

Associate Editor:

  • Stacy Bloom

Camera Crew:

  • Rob Weller
  • Michael Curtiss


  • Michael Pritchard

Still Photographs Courtesy of

  • Dan Lamont Photojournalism

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Carl J Clausen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was a very powerful education opportunity for 'city kids' to connect with First People of this region. The creative process, cultural connections, and travel were great learning bridges. These kinds of experiences students will never forget. They have gained a whole new appreciation and respect for their place place in society.

World Scholar's picture
World Scholar
International nonprofit linking students & mentors around the world

What an excellent premise and video! Thank you for sharing.

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