A quick Google search of Josh Watts returns stories about his athletic scholarship, rugby playing, traditional singing, language revitalization, and canoe restoration. Watts is well-known among Squamish Nation and hails from Cowichan Lake/Nuu-chah-nulth. Watts says: “I’m a simple man, I just want to do good things for my people, and good things for my family. I just want to be the best I can be, at things I enjoy.”
Does the canoe have a name?
JW: The canoe’s named after The Copper Man legend. Skwa7ils (skwa-ails) was a Copper Man who had supernatural powers. The name came to one of the men working on the canoe when they were working. The canoe was carved for the Squamish Nation education department a few years ago.
Are there cultural practices when it comes to working on somebody else’s canoe?
JW: Our people have many cultural practice for all kinds of work. We are taught to have a clear mind, a clear heart, a respectful demeanour, and to acknowledge the work of the ones before. Our people have a teaching that we can’t say no to people when they ask us for help, especially in ceremony. Our culture and traditions wouldn’t carry on if everyone put their schedules in front of the balance our culture provides.
What materials are traditionally used in the building and maintenance of ocean canoes?
JW: Pitch, roots, and wood most plant-based materials that come from the trees around here. However, our people are resourceful. For some, our culture and our people are legitimised only by our tools and materials, but in reality, we are not our tools. We use our tools, the heart of our culture is in what we do. We use power tools and modern commodities like fibreglass because of the convenience. Just like how people don’t ride in a horse and carriage to work.
Does Skwa7ils have any traditional symbolic elements in its colour, shape, detail, or decoration?
JW: Our people use black and red, as those colours represent protection and strength. Those colours are omnipresent through all aspects of our people’s lives, through art, regalia, tools, and vessels. The style of canoe that this is, is said to represent a deer.
Have you travelled in open ocean in one of these canoes? What’s it like?
JW: I grew up on the water, racing canoe into my middle teens. It definitely shaped who I am today, by teaching me very important values of our waters. However war canoe (racing) and seagoing are very different. A few years back I went with a group of Squamish people on a journey to Bella Bella–600 nautical miles and 18 days on the water. It was a invaluable experience and I recommend all people take the time to get out and connect with the land more. It provides a clarity that you can’t get anywhere else.
What is your personal duty, your responsibility on a project like this?
JW: Our people believe that knowledge is a responsibility, instead of the more commonly known phrase “knowledge is power.” We believe that if you have the ability to do something, you are obligated to use what you know, and what you have to help others. Our gifts and everything we are given, are borrowed from somewhere.
Did you take visitors or bring snacks or have a soundtrack?
JW: You know, it wasn’t intended to be a tourist attraction or anything. But for some reason, people felt obligated to come in and share, or just appreciate the work I was doing. As for a soundtrack whenever my bros were around, we’d be sharing some of our songs from our people. We’re a pretty passionate group of singers and we like to sing whenever we’re together.
Did the canoe and your work give you any lessons?
JW: I would like to acknowledge my teacher Ray Natraoro–a wonderful mentor, teacher, and dear friend of mine. He has shown me that our greatest teacher is the wood. The wood shows us things that no one else can. The canoe taught me a lot by working on it, and I am humbled by how much there is to learn.
Why should this canoe be here now?
JW: This dugout traditional canoe is one of the only seagoing canoes in the valley. It is important for our people to continue this oceanic life because our people come from these waters. Our life was by the river, or on the ocean. All life revolves around the water. The ocean provides so much for our people. The canoe guides us through its world. It is essential that our people hold this canoe life with pride and carry this tradition for the sake of our ancestors and future generations.
Video interview with Joshua, courtesy of Surrey 604.