Tribal Canoe Journey 2013: The Resurrection Of Northwest Coast Canoe Culture Offers A Glimpse Back Through Time
I always try to catch the final landing of the annual Tribal Canoe Journey, and usually like to watch it from the water in a kayak. This year's Journey celebration promised to be spectacular, because it was hosted by the Quinault Indian tribe, whose reservation is located in Taholah on Washington's coast. About one hundred canoes would be completing an open ocean voyage and landing through surf. Since it was a weekday, Katya and I both took a day off work to drive to the coast to catch this event.
Some of the canoes had landed the day before and were parked side by side on the expansive beach, with paddles, lifejackets and empty plastic water bottles littering their bilges. The paddlers had camped overnight in tents nearby. As the other canoes arrived later in the day, these canoes would be launched through the surf again to make another landing, an official one this time, with their captains formally asking permission from the hosting Quinault tribe to come ashore.
Although it marked the end of a long journey (as long as a month for some of the pullers traveling from British Columbia) it was only the beginning of a non-stop six day celebration involving feasting, singing, dancing, and drumming. Each tribe would take a turn presenting its ceremonial protocol, a collection of traditional songs and dances handed down from generation to generation.
Although a few canoes are made of fiberglass, most are traditionally built, the hulls carved out of a single large cedar log. Sea kayaker Reg Lake helped design and build a cedar strip canoe for the Lummi tribe, which can be seen in this video. It was probably the lightest canoe there for its size.
In the mid 1980s, before the first intertribal canoe journey involving 18 canoes called the "Paddle to Seattle", the skills and knowledge needed to carve an ocean going native canoe using the traditional method had almost completely disappeared. When the movement to resurrect the canoe tradition in the Pacific Northwest began, it had been almost 50 years since anyone had carved a canoe. It wasn't even possible for the tribes to harvest trees large enough to make canoes until they were able to obtain a permit from the US Forest Service to harvest 600-year old trees. They got approval under the 1978 Religious Freedom Act, because of the canoe's religious and ceremonial significance. The Washington National Guard and a few private companies assisted the tribes in harvesting and transporting the old growth trees used to build the canoes in the first Paddle to Seattle.
A detailed description of canoe construction can be found in Hillary Stewart's book Cedar: Tree of LIfe to the Northwest Coast Indians, as well as online in Edward Curtis's book The North American Indian (Volume 9, page 60), both amazing resources. Traditionally, enormous red or yellow cedar trees were felled using simple handtools and fire. Working with adzes and chisels with blades of stone or bone and driven by short stone mauls, the natives would first gouge out two deep parallel grooves around a tree about 30 inches apart. As the wood between the two grooves was chiseled out in planks, one large grove was made around the circumference of the tree. Glowing hot rocks were placed into the groove to further deepen it with fire. Mud was caked onto the tree above the hole to control the burn. It would take several days to fell a tree, which could be as large as 6 feet in diameter. A trunk this size could be used to make two large canoes or three smaller ones.
Although trees close to the building site or ocean were more convenient, trees deep in the forest that were sheltered from sunlight didn't grow branches along most of their trunks and therefore had straight, uninterrupted grain, which was more desirable. They sometimes needed to be transported miles to where the canoe would be finished. After the tree was felled it would be split and the bark and the sapwood removed. The outside would be carved to final shape. It would then be left outside over the winter to allow the wood to mature. In the spring, the builders would return to the site to rough out the inside to make it lighter for transport to the final building site.
The master carver would carve out the inside of the canoe using adzes and chisels. Excess wood would be removed as planks. Alternatively, fire and controlled burning could be used. Carving the walls to uniform thickness was achieved by drilling holes into the walls and inserting pegs of predetermined length into them, and then carving the sides down until the pegs were reached. It has also been reported that master carvers were able to accurately determine the thickness of the wood by feel alone. Carvers were able to achieve remarkable thinness and uniformity in the hull, which was typically two finger widths thick at the sides and three finger widths at the bottom.
When the interior was fully carved out, the canoe would be filled with water, and red hot rocks would be placed inside to bring it to boil. This would soften the sides enough to get them to flare outwards. A slow fire built around the entire canoe would also help soften the wood. Builders would force thwarts between the sides and lash them at the gunwales to push the sides further apart.
The prominent upswept bow and stern on canoes were actually pieces separate from the hull and were joined to the hull with wooden pegs and lashings of cedar withe or rope. Cracks, holes, and rot could be repaired by replacing damaged sections with new wood, chalking the cracks with cedar fiber, lashing pieces together with cedar withes, rope, or spruce root and then sealing the joints with pitch.
Finally, the outside of the canoe was charred with burning branches and pitch to harden the wood. Charring the hull was responsible for the traditional black color. Rubbing the wood with fish oil sealed and protected it. The inside of the canoe was painted, and designs could be carved and painted on the outside as well.
British explorer Captain James Cook reported that the average canoe was 40 ft long with a 7 foot beam and 3 feet deep. The largest ocean going canoes could be 64 feet long and 8 feet wide. One has to wonder if there even exist trees big enough today to build a canoe this large.