Tag Archives: canoes

Yukon River Canoe Project 2009 Blog

Work on the log begins. Source: Yukon Canoe Project.

I just found an interesting blog that traces a community project to carve a Tlingit style dugout canoe on the banks of the Yukon River near Whitehorse:

Nineteen young Yukon carvers made history by creating a 30-foot red cedar dugout canoe. Under the leadership of Tlingit Master Carver Wayne Price, the carvers went on a journey of discovery.

An island on the east side of the Yukon River became their home for the next two months as went go back on the land to learn the traditional techniques for carving a dugout canoe.

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Making Yuxwch’ee Yakw, a Tlingit Spruce Canoe

Working on Yuxwch’ee Yakw, the Spruce Canoe. Source: Sealaska Picasa page.

Most people are familiar with the use of red cedar to make dugout canoes on the Northwest Coast.  It is not as commonly known that Sitka spruce was also used for this purpose, especially on the northernmost coast where red cedar did not thrive or was absent completely.

Via the Sealaska Heritage Institute Special Collections blog, I just found a nice, extensive photo set from 1987 of the carving of a spruce canoe near Hoonah, a Tlingit village in Southeast Alaska.  The introduction to the photo set reads:

As part of the bicentennial of the Constitution celebration of 1987, the National Park Service and the Sealaska Heritage Foundation (now Sealaska Heritage Institute) sponsored the carving of a Tlingit canoe using traditional tools and methods at Bartlett Cove, which is near Hoonah, Alaska. The canoe, called Yuxwch’ee Yakw in Tlingit, means Sea Otter Canoe, which was the indigenous canoe of Hoonah and was photographed by the Harriman Expedition in Glacier Bay in 1899. The canoe was constructed at Bartlett Cover in August 1987. George Dalton, Sr, born in Hoonah in 1879, and other elders with personal knowledge of canoe making traditions served as cultural advisors to the project. Lead carvers Nathan Jackson, Steve Brown, Richard Dalton, and Mick Beasley carved the canoe using a Sitka Spruce log using traditional tools, such as the xot’ah or Tlingit adze.

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A Stillaguamish River Canoe

Roughly dressed block of cedar in preparation for carving. Source: flickr.com

The Stillaguamish Tribe live along the Stillaguamish River basin (map) of Northwestern Washington State.  They are a tribe which missed out on any reservation land in the 1850s and have struggled somewhat at times to maintain cultural identity as a diaspora.  Regaining Federal Status in 1976 was important to the tribe of about 200 members, as was 2009′s first “First Salmon” ceremonies in a generation.

An interesting and encouraging development seems to be the recent carving of the first Stillaguamish river canoe in a century.  While the larger dugout canoes (still being carved) of the outer coast nations, such as the Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth, are better known emblems of the Northwest Coast as a whole, these river canoes were equally important to the inland waterway and riverine nations of the Fraser Valley and Puget Sound.

According to an informative and well-written article in the Everett HeraldNet, the story starts with an interesting origin of the cedar log itself.

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Maori Canoe found in New Zealand Beach

Canoe being excavated at Muriwai Beach, 2010. Source: stuff.co.nz

From the Northwest Coast (of New Zealand) comes inspiring news for Northwest Coast (of North America) archaeologists.

I don’t know how many times I’ve told students that I would never really expect to find a canoe in an archaeological site and that the evidence for watercraft and marine fluency – still a contentious issue for the early Northwest Coast – will likely be resolved through interpretation of marine fauna from archaeological and from finding sites on remote islands.  While in my view Kilgii Gwaay settles this question for the early period on the Northwest Coast,  I suspect nothing short of a 10,000 year old dugout canoe will satisfy some people as to whether the first inhabitants around here could catch a fish.

So it came as a surprise to read that a nearly-complete, seven-metre long Maori wooden waka tikai, or river  canoe, has been recently found in Muriwai Beach (map) on the Northwest Coast of New Zealand (video clip).  The canoe may take several years to properly conserve, and is currently undated.  While the canoe presumably is less than a thousand years old (the accepted time frame for the  arrival of Maori in New Zealand), the fact that it survived at all, buried in the sands of what appears to be a fairly exposed beach, leads me to think we need to keep our eyes open more for this kind of find on the Northwest Coast.  This story claims that it was seen washing up in the 1920s, but still – once something like this survives the process of burial then it might survive for a very long time indeed protected deep in dark, wet beach or dune deposits.  Memo to self: don’t be so pessimistic!

Maori waka being raised. Source: nzherald.co.nz

Makah whaling gear

Parts of a Makah whaling canoe. Source: Waterman, 1920.

I posted a couple of days ago about a historic photo of members of the Quinalt Tribe making canoes in the Queets watershed.  Immediately to the north, the Makah tribe at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula are well known for their succesful whale hunting practices, carried out from canoes similar to those being carved.

As it happens, in 1920 the Anthropologist T.T. Waterman wrote a detailed account of Makah whaling technology, which you can download in full here (PDF).   Above, I illustrate the nomenclature of the Makah whaling canoe – I like how the small bump on the lower bow is called the uvula.  Below, you can see the seating plan when geared up and loaded for whale.  As you might expect for such a dangerous undertaking as killing whales from a canoe, the division of labour is quite precise:  “float-tender”, “harpoon line tender”, “float inflator” .  The “diver” had the task of swimming to the lower jaw of the dead whale, piercing the skin and flesh, and sewing the mouth shut to prevent the whale sinking on the long tow home.  You can see a vivid picture of some of these people further below.  Descriptions of these tasks and the associated gear is given in Waterman, which contains huge insight into traditional Northwest Coast technology and social practice.   I’ll most likely post more snippets from this book in due course.  The Makah have, of course, recently re-asserted their traditional right to hunt whales which I fully support.

Seating positions within a Makah whaling canoe. Source: Waterman, 1920.

Makah Whaling: the 2nd harpoon strike. Line tender in action behind the harpooner. Source: Makah Tribe.

One Tree, Four Canoes

"Making 4 canoes from one cedar tree, Olympic Loop, Queets, Washington.

Yesterday I posted on canoe steaming.  In the process of preparing that, I ran across an eye-popping photograph, above.  Seriously, I have been working on Northwest Coast Archaeology for over two decades.  I have a pretty good memory.

But I’d never seen this picture before, which shows four dugout canoes being made from a single red cedar felled on the Queets River, Washington State.  Click it for pretty high resolution.  This would presumably be territory of the Queets Tribe, who are now part of the Coast Salish speaking Quinalt Indian Nation.  Imagine the complex and revealing archaeological site left behind: the wood shavings, the planks, the skids, broken tools, coffee cups … years ago I worked on an excavation of a Culturally Modified Tree Site in Clayoquot Sound and we found superbly preserved wooden wedges, woodchips and other evidence of intensive logging and carpentry — evidence which, given the durability of cedar, could easily last for centuries.  Such a contrast to those sites dominated by stone tools: wood was where it was at on the Northwest Coast and yet archaeologically we see much less of it, and think about it less, than we ought to.

I don’t know much more about this picture than the caption.  If you do, then leave a comment!

Makah whaling canoes on the beach at Neah Bay. These are stylistically similar to the ones being made above and to the one being steamed in yesterday's video.

Canoe Steaming

Carl and Joe Martin steam a canoe near Tofino. Click to play video.

The Northwest Coast is rightly famous for the superb dugout canoes made by First Nations, a craft which continues to the present day.  It takes weeks or months to carve  a canoe from a single log of red cedar – imagine then the tension inherent in having a big part of the success or failure “boil down” to a single event the steaming process.  The video above shows master carvers Joe and Carl Martin of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation steaming a canoe at a beach near Tofino, on western Vancouver Island.

Steaming softens the cedar and makes it more flexible, allowing the insertion of carefully-measured, carefully-planned wooden spacers which spread the middle of the canoe into a graceful curve, increasing its buoyancy, resistance to capsizing, and introducing subtle yet beautiful lines, as seen in this enormous example mis-labelled (I think) as Salish.  After the canoe cools and dries, the wood returns to its natural properties. The process means the canoe can in principle be wider than the single piece of cedar from which it is carved.

You can click here to see a slide show of the steaming of a Haida canoe carved by the team of Jaalen Edenshaw and his father Guujaw. In the old times, a canoe might be roughed out in the bush then hauled to the beach for finishing.  Sometimes flaws in the wood or other interruptions mean a canoe was never finished.  Such half-finished vessels are a known, but uncommon archaeological site in the woods of coastal British Columbia.

The carving of such canoes is increasingly common.  Nowadays, the canoe log is likely to be hauled to a carving shed.  Sadly, a major constraint  on canoe construction is the difficulty in obtaining prime, straight, clear, old-growth cedar logs.

Partially finished Haida canoe in forest. Photo by Martin Lalune.