American Indian Culture
Boats and Watercraft
Tribes Affected: Widespread but not pantribal
Significance:Many native peoples used watercraft for hunting
Native American watercraft generally fall into three basic types: dugout canoes, birchbark canoes, and kayaks. The word "canoe" is a general term that refers to many different types of light, narrow boats with pointed ends that are propelled by paddling. Christopher Columbus first recorded the word canáoa, which was used by natives in the West Indies to describe their dugout boats.
Because of their heavy weight and the difficulty of overland transport, dugout canoes were primarily used by more stationary tribes or by those who fished or navigated on the oceans and thus needed a very strong craft. The Tlingit, for example, who lived in the area of present-day southeastern Alaska along the Pacific coast, constructed canoes for -fishing and coastal voyages out of large red cedar trees, which they felled by building a fire at each tree's base. They then hollowed out the log with a stone axe and sometimes added planks along the sides or fastened two canoes together, side by side, with spars made from sturdy branches for more stability in rough waters. Smaller canoes for two or three persons were fashioned from cottonwood logs and used for river travel and fishing. The larger oceangoing canoes could carry as many as sixty people and measured up to 45 feet in length. A dugout canoe on display in New York City's Museum of Natural History from Queen Charlotte's Island, off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, measures 63 feet long, 8 feet, 3 inches wide, and 5 feet deep; it was cut from a single log. Along the eastern coast of the United States, dugout canoes made from pine, oak, chestnut, or tulip wood were common. It took one man ten or twelve days to make a dugout canoe by lighting a small fire in the center of the log and then chopping out the charred wood with an axe. Dugout canoes were heavy but sturdy, and predominated in areas where birchbark was scarce.
Eskimos often used umiaks to carry families and supplies. (National Archives)
The birchbark canoe was first used by the Algonquin Indians in what is now the northeastern United States and Canada, where birch trees were plentiful. They were extremely buoyant and sturdy, yet light enough to be carried over land, which made them particularly useful for exploration and trade and for hunting and trapping in smaller rivers. The early French missionaries, fur traders, and explorers in North America all used birchbark canoes, and the adoption of the bark canoe by European explorers is in large part responsible for the rapid exploration and development of the continent.
Indian birchbark canoes varied in length from 15 to almost 100 feet for canoes built to carry warriors. The Ojibwa (Chippewa), once one of the largest tribes north of Mexico, were master canoe makers. They would first outline the craft's shape by driving wood stakes into the ground; then thick, pliable sheets of birchbark were placed inside and fastened to wooden gunwales (the upper edge of the canoe). The frame was fortified with cedar ribs, and the bark was sewn with strings made from spruce roots. Finally, the seams were made watertight with sap from spruce trees. Other tribes substituted bark from elm, hickory, spruce, basswood, or chestnut when birch was unavailable, but barks other than birch absorbed water quickly. Often such canoes were built for limited use and then simply abandoned as they became waterlogged and heavy.
Kayaks and Umiaks
One of the most significant achievements of the Eskimos (Inuits) was the invention of the kayak, which is perhaps the most seaworthy watercraft ever built. Most were about the size of a small canoe and were made from a frame of driftwood, saplings, or whalebone, over which sealskin was tightly stretched and made waterproof by rubbing it with animal fat. Kayaks were commonly built for one occupant but could be designed for two or three. They were first used as hunting boats for walrus and seals by the Eskimos of Greenland and later also used by Alaskan Eskimos. Some scholars suggest that the design of the birchbark canoes used by tribes in the more southerly areas of North America was adapted from the kayak.
The kayak is completely covered except for a hole in which the paddler sits, which the Eskimos made watertight by lacing their clothing over the rim of the hole. Since they were completely waterproof and highly maneuverable, kayaks could be launched in rough surf and navigated through ice-infested ocean waters that would quickly swamp an open boat. Since the paddler sat low in the center, kayaks were also useful in rivers with swift waters and rapids. Propelled by a double-bladed paddle, a capsized kayak could be righted by a skillful person without taking in any water by rolling full circle.
When pursuing seal or walrus, the hunter would lean forward, concealed behind a small sail-like blind attached to the bow. As he drew close, he would hurl a wooden spear attached to the boat by a line coiled in a tray on the deck.
The Eskimos also used a larger, open boat covered with animal skins called a "umiak," which is Eskimo for "wo-man's boat," as it was most often piloted by the women in the group. The umiak was used for carrying families and supplies and was propelled by both paddles and oars--the only known instance of the use of oars by Native Americans before the coming of the Europeans. Some of the Eskimo boats may also have been powered by sails; among the other native peoples of the American continents, only the Mayas of the Yucatán Peninsula and the natives of the coast of Peru were known to have used sails before the Europeans arrived. Most Eskimos today have replaced their kayaks with wood or aluminum boats, and their sails and paddles with outboard gasoline motors.
The modern descendants of Native American canoes and kayaks are made from wood, aluminum, canvas, or fiberglass, and are used for sport, recreation, or competition.
Raymond FreySources for Further Study
Adney, Edwin Tappan, and Howard I. Chapelle. The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964.
Cunningham, Richard. California Indian Watercraft. San Luis Obispo, Calif. : EZ Nature Books, 1989.
McPhee, John. The Survival of the Bark Canoe. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975.
National Geographic Society. National Geographic on Indians of the Americas. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1955.
Oswalt, Wendell H. This Land Was Theirs: A Study of North American Indians. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966.
Weyer, Edward Moffat. The Eskimos: Their Environment and Folkways. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1932.
Birchbark; Transportation Modes.
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