Native Technology: The Birch Bark Canoe
The First Nation People of North America survived for thousands of years before European occupation. They did so as a result of developing technology which perfectly met their needs.
Among native technologies the most prominent are the canoe, the snow shoes, the tobbagan, the sled, the Wigwam, the crooked knife, woven baskets and birchbark containers.
In the northern woodlands there was an abundance of flora and fauna to support life for those who could travel and seek it out in season. It is a land of countless waterways which were perfect highways with the right technological creation. That was the canoe.
I have long loved canoes. I got mine when I was 17 and I have hauled it with me wherever I went. It has brought me countless hours of enjoyment both a graceful human powered machine, and as a work of art. Mine is a classic cedar strip canvas covered canoe. Even when made in factories it is largely a hand crafted work of art.
I have always thought it would be wonderful to make a birch bark canoe as our First Nation people did in order the live there nomatic life in the great woodlands of North America. A birch bark canoe can be made with just a few hand tools and materials easily gotten from the forest. There are a few craftsmen around who still make canoes as the First Nation people did. They are people with skill and patience create a work of art which is perfectly adapted to travel on the lakes and rivers of our country.
Song of Hiawatha
Give me of your bark, O Birch Tree!
Of your yellow bark, O Birch Tree!
Tall and stately in the valley!
I a light canoe will build me,
Build a swift Cheemaun for sailing,
That shall float upon the river,
Like a yellow leaf in Autumn
Like a yellow water-lily!“
Lay aside your cloak, o Birch Tree!
Lay aside your white-skin wrapper,
For the Summer-time is coming,
And the sun is warm in heaven,
And you need no white-skin wrapper!“
Thus aloud cried Hiawatha
In the solitary forest,
By the rushing Taquamenaw,
When the birds were singing gaily.
And the tree with all its branches
Rustled in the breeze of morning,
Saying with a sigh of patience,
Take my cloak, O Hiawatha!
With his knife the tree he girdled;
Just beneath its lowest branches,
Just above the roots, he cut it,
Till the sap came oozing outward;
Sheer he cleft the bark asunder,
With a wooden wedge he raised it,
Stripped it from the trunk unbroken.
Thus the Birch Canoe was builded
In the valley, by the river,
In the bosom of the forest;
And the forest´s life was in it,
All its mystery and its magic,
All the lightness of the birch-tree,
All the toughness of the cedar,
All the larch´s supple sinews;
And it floated on the river
Like a yellow leaf in Autumn,
Like a yellow water-lily.
Below is a video of a Cree, César Newashish, making a birch bark canoe from cutting down the birch tree to taking it for a test run on the water. I really enjoyed this video for several reasons. I love the appearance of the man whose life time of hard work in the out of doors shows, from his weathered skin to the slight hump in his back. I particularly love his hands, strong and full of character. I also enjoy his patience and skill in creating a finished canoe. It is nice to see the children, playing around him as he works and occasionally paying attention to what he is doing, perhaps learning a little so some day they too may make a canoe.
Pride of craftsmanship shows when the man decorates his canoe to more fully have it express itself as a work of art. He draws animals on it that are familiar to life in the bush. I hope you will take the time to watch this creation of a canoe from a few local materials, with hand tools and the skill and patience of a craftsman. It all speaks of the dignity of careful work to create the perfect object, practical and beautiful.
This canoe is very similar to the one being made in the video. It is in the Ojibwa style that the Anishinaabe (people) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anishinaabe of this area used. This was for sale for $5,200 about twice what one would pay for a canvas cedar strip canoe like mine. Fifty years ago, when I bought mine new I paid $150.
If you wanted an authenic birchbark canoe, built according to the historic documents in the Smithstonian Museum it would cost you at least $650 a linear foot which is what Henri Vaillancourt charges for his canoes which truly are a work of art, almost too beautiful to use.
There are a few birchbark Canoe builders in our region. All seem to be interesting characters, none more so than Eric Simula, who is on a 1000 mile canoe trip in Northwestern Ontario in a canoe he built. http://arrowheadjourney.wordpress.com/intro/
For a careful worker, I believe a person could make a birchbark canoe. A woman in Ottawa whose website I have visited for several years, made a small one in her backyard. She also has made other native crafts including beautiful mukluks which I covet. http://www.jumaka.com/birchbarkcanoe/buildingpage/building.htm
In Canada, a land on countless lakes and river, with 1/4 to 1/3 of all the Earth's fresh water, the canoe is a powerful symbol of our heritage and the gift of such a perfect technology from our First Nation's People.