Northwest Coast Canoes

The area along the Pacific Coast north of California and between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean, is the home to many Indian nations who traditionally based their economy on the use of sea coast and river ecological resources. This is an area which stretches from the Tlingit homelands in Alaska to the Tolowa homelands in northern California. The Northwest Coast culture area is oriented toward water: the ocean to the west and the many rivers flowing into it. Before the coming of the Europeans, the villages were built near water: the sea coast or a river.

Haida House

Haida houses and canoes are shown above.  

For a people oriented toward the sea and the rivers, canoes made from cedar were an important part of the Northwestern cultures. Nowhere else in the world were canoes developed to such a degree of sophistication and artistry. The canoes were large, elegant, and seagoing.

NW Coast Canoe 1

Kwakiutl Canoe

Photographs of a Northwest Coast canoes by Edward Curtis is shown above.

The first Europeans into this area were amazed at the carrying capacity and beautiful construction of the Northwest Coast canoes. The canoes were used for fishing, for hunting sea mammals such as whales, and for trade up and down the coast. Haida oral tradition tells of canoe voyages to Hawaii.

Transportation was primarily by water and distances were measured by how far a canoe could travel in a single day. The various Indian nations along the Northwest Coast undertook long trading voyages to exchanges specialized goods and local resources. In addition, distant nations were often connected through marriage alliances among the chiefly elites.

Writing about Northwest Coast canoes in 1868, Gilbert Sproat reported:

“They are moved by a single sail or by paddles, or in ascending shallow rapid streams, by long poles.”

In rough water they would tie bladders of seal-skin to the sides of the canoe to prevent it from upsetting.

With regard to paddling the canoes, Gilbert Sproat reported:

“In taking a seat in a canoe, the paddler drops on his knees at the bottom, then turns his toes in, and sits down as it were on his heels. The paddle is grasped both in the middle and at the handle. To give a stroke and propel the canoe forward, the hand grasping the middle of the paddle draws the blade of the paddle backwards through the water, and the hand grasping the handle pushes the handle-end forward, and thus aids the other hand in making each stroke of the paddle; a sort of double action movement.”

In a moderately sized canoe, two paddlers were able to make about 40 miles in a day.

The reports of sails on Northwest Coast canoes has been controversial. With an ethnocentric assumption that the Indian nations of the Northwest Coast were isolated and “primitive”, and ignoring oral traditions of trade with distant lands (including Hawaii) and trade items showing contact with Asia, most non-Indian scholars have steadfastly reported that the use of sails was introduced by the European explorers. In 1868 Gilbert Sproat explained the sail this way:

“The sail-of which it is supposed, but rather vaguely, that they got the idea from Meares some eighty years ago-is a square mat tied at the top to a small stick or yard crossing a mast placed close to the bow.”

Sailing Canoe 3

Sailing Canoe 1

Sailing Canoe 2

Photographs of Northwest Coast canoes with sails are shown above.

In some instances, cedar planks were lashed between two or three canoes to make extra space for cargo or to make a stage for groups of dancers. Cedar planks lashed across the gunwales of a single canoe would create a platform for a single ceremonial dancer.  

Canoe Dancers

For the people of the Northwest Coast the canoe was more than just a utilitarian object: it was, and still is, a spiritual vessel that is an object of great respect. Respect for spirituality of the canoe begins with its life as a tree in the forest, and continues with the ceremonies involved with cutting down and fashioning it into a canoe. The canoe is a metaphor for the importance of community as the large canoes require a community of workers, people working in harmony both socially and spiritually. The canoe is seen as a living entity, a spiritual entity. Each canoe has its own spirit and personality.

The Northwest Coast canoes are dugout canoes which are fashioned from a single log. Carving a canoe begins with spiritual preparation: the carvers must prepare themselves with fasting, prayers, and the sweatlodge. It is not uncommon for the task of carving a large canoe to take two years. Once the log is chosen, a prayer is said for the cedar and an offering is given to thank it for its sacrifice. The carver then rough-shapes the log, removing the bark and sapwood with an ax and an elbow adze. Then the ends are tapered.

At this time, the log is left to season over the winter. This is a crucial step in that it ensures that the canoe will not crack too badly in later stages of carving. Once the log is seasoned, then the exterior lines of the canoe are established. The inside is then hollowed out, initially using wedges to split out large sections, and finally completing this task with controlled burning and adzing. The final stage in carving the canoe involves the use of hot rocks and water to steam-bend the sides outwards. This steaming also draws the bow and stern upwards as well as adding strength to the vessel.

Finally, the prow and stern pieces are added, the thwarts and seats are installed, and the exterior is finished. Then the canoe is given a name and is ready to begin its life on the water.

The Tlingit in southern Alaska would make canoes during the winter using red cedar logs for the larger canoes. In making the canoe, the outside of the log was first shaped and then the log was hollowed out. To make sure that the canoe walls were of a uniform thickness, small holes were bored from the outside and wooden plugs stuck in them. When the plug was reached in hollowing out the inside, the workers knew that they had reached the proper thickness. Once the canoe was hollowed out, it was then spread to give it greater stability. This was done by filling the canoe with water and then dropping hot stones into the water. Crosspieces would then spread the softening walls of the canoe and these would gradually be replaced by longer ones in order to obtain the correct shape.

With regard to the overall size of the Tlingit canoes, the long-distance voyaging canoes (sometimes called “war” canoes) ranged from 35 to 65 feet long and six to eight feet wide. They could carry 50 to 60 people and had about a five-ton capacity.

The long projecting prows and the high, spur-shaped sterns of Tlingit canoes were used to display clan and tribal crests. The figures on the canoes were generally outlined in black and then filled in with red, yellow, and green.

Tlingit canoes are named and the concept or idea of the name is carried out with figures carved on the bow and stern. Common Tlingit canoes names are Sun, Moon, Earth, Island, Shaman, Whale, Otter, Eagle, and Raven.

The Makah, in what is now Washington State, were highly skilled mariners. Using sophisticated navigational and maritime skills, they were able to travel the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean and the swift waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca with relative ease. They used various types of canoes. Carved from western red cedar, there were canoes used for a myriad of purposes, each one specifically created for that task. There were war, whaling, halibut, salmon fishing, sealing canoes and large cargo canoes. There were even smaller canoes which children used for practice. The canoes had sails so that paddlers could use the wind to their advantage. When they landed, it was done stern first so that, if necessary, the paddlers could make a quick exit. The canoes and their contents were never disturbed as the Makah were taught from an early age to respect the belongings of others. The Makah were tireless paddlers and traveled great distances to obtain food or trade their wealth.

The Makah whaling canoe was about 40 feet in length with the prow of the boat carved separately and attached to the bow. The canoe’s interior was painted a deep red. The exterior of the canoe was painted black with a solution of burnt alder and fish oil or sometimes with a special mud from a swamp. The Makah used woven mats as canoe sails.

The Coast Salish also constructed canoes for sheltered water use in the bays, inlets, and rivers of the Puget Sound area. Salish canoes were made to master the open ocean as well as the waters of Puget Sound and the straits. The Salish people traveled up and down the coast fishing, trading, and hunting. The Salish inland water canoe had a more gently sloping bow and a rounded a bottom. These canoes were very stable.

Among the Coast Salish, when a family needed a canoe, they would commission a canoe-making specialist to make it for them. A good canoe carver could make two large canoes or four small ones out of a single log. The large ocean-going canoes could carry as many as one hundred people.

Over the past decade there has been a revitalization of traditional canoe building among the Northwest Coast Nations.

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