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For Joe Martin, the dying art of dugout-canoe making is an inheritance from his father that he has a duty to preserve. As a boy from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation off Vancouver Island, picking up carving skills was as natural as fishing or hunting. Now, at 66, he wants to pass on the craft to the young people of his community

The dugout canoe is a vital symbol of the livelihood and the culture of the Nuu-chah-nulth, 14 related First Nations on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Historically, master carver Joe Martin says, stone, bone and fire were used to carve dugout canoes in the Nuu-chah-nulth way. He has an array of modern tools to get the job done, but is committed to building the canoes as his father taught him to do.

Carving tools hang on the wall inside Mr. Martin's workshop in Tofino. Some bear the shapes of animal heads. 'We had art on our tools and it was a constant reminder of how we're expected to behave,' he says. 'It's a reminder of our teachings from our parents.'

Across from the Tofino harbour is Meares Island, where Mr. Martin was born in the village of Opitsaht. It was on this island that his father, Chief Robert Martin Sr., taught him to carve canoes, hunt and fish. 'There was no such thing as a couch potato in the former days,' the younger Mr. Martin says. 'People used to speak really proudly about being strong and being ready.'

In a corner of Mr. Martin's Tofino workshop, he has a copy of Around the World in a Dugout Canoe. It is the story of John Voss, a Danish-born Canadian captain who set out to circumnavigate the globe in the 1900s on a Nuu-chah-nulth-built vessel, the Tilikum.

To build canoes properly, a carver must make sure the stern, or back, is centred. Here, Mr. Martin's nephew Francis holds the stern in place while Mr. Martin checks with a level.

Mr. Martin traces a pattern on the stern so he can whittle it into the signature Nuu-chah-nulth shape. Traditional canoes are painted black and white to resemble killer whales, discouraging other sea mammals from attacking it.

Few still know how to do the traditional woodcarving of the Nuu-chah-nulth. Here, Mr. Martin shows 23-year-old David Curley some of the final steps for shaping a hull. The master carver says he’s starving for young people to master the art that has brought him so much joy. 'Maybe not all of them,' he said. 'But at least one or two of them so it can be passed on.'

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