Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Canoes and Boats of the Amerindians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[For further information consult the page at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians ]



Under this general term are included various kinds of water-craft used throughout North America wherever waters favoured. The [Inuit] have two forms - the man's boat ( kaiak, Russian baidarka ) and the woman's boat ( umiak, Russian baidarra ) - made by stretching a covering of seal hide over a framework of whale ribs or of driftwood. The umiak, or woman's boat, is an open scow with little modification of bow and stern, propelled with large oars and a sail made of intestines; but the man's boat is one of the most effective devices for water travel in the world. The man sits in a small hatch, and, in the lighter forms, when his water-tight jacket is lashed to the gunwale he is practically shut in, so that though the water may pass entirely over him, scarcely a drop enters the craft. He moves himself through the water by means of a paddle, in most cases a double one.


Immediately in touch with the skin-boat countries all around the Arctic , from Labrador to Kodiak in Alaska and southward to the line of the white birch, eastward of the Rocky mts., and including the country of the Great lakes , existed the birch-bark canoe. With framework of light spruce wood, the covering or sheathing of bits of tough bark sewed together and made water-tight by means of melted pitch, these boats are interesting subjects of study, as the exigencies of travel and portage, the quality of the material, and traditional ideas produce different forms in different areas. Near the mouth of the Yukon , where the water is sometimes turbulent, the canoe is pointed at both ends and partly decked over. On the E. side of Canada the bow and the stern of the canoe are greatly rounded up. A curious form has been reported by travellers among the Beothuk of Newfoundland. On the Kootenay, and all over the plateaus of British Columbia and N. Washington , the Asiatic form, monitor-shaped, pointed at either end under the water, is made from pine bark instead of birch bark.


From the N. boundary of the United States , at least from the streams emptying into the St. Lawrence southward along the Atlantic slope, dugout canoes, or pirogues, were the instruments of navigation. On the Missouri r. and elsewhere a small tub-shaped craft of willow frame covered with rawhide, with no division of bow or stern, locally known as the bull-boat, was used by Sioux, Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa women for carrying their goods down or across the rivers. It was so light that when one was emptied a woman could take it on her back and make her way across the land. On the w. coast, from mt. St. Elias southward to Eel r., Cal., excellent dugout canoes were made from giant cedar and other light woods, some of them nearly 100 ft. long. The multitude of islands off the N. coast rendered it possible for the natives to pass from one to the other, and thus they were induced to invent sea-going canoes of fine quality, Here also from tribe to tribe the forms differ somewhat as to the shape of the bow and stern and the ornamentation. On the California coast and navigable streams N. of Cape Mendocino, well-made wooden dugout canoes were used; wooden canoes, made chiefly of planks lashed together and caulked, were used in the Santa Barbara Id, region; both were important elements in influencing the culture of the people of these sections. Everywhere else in California, barring the occasional use of corracles and rafts of logs, transportation by water was conducted by means of balsas, consisting of rushes tied in bundles, generally, if not always, with more or less approximation to a boat of cigar shape. In certain spots in California, as on Clear lake among the Pomo and Tulare lake among the Yokuts, these tule balsas were important factors in native life; elsewhere in the state much less so (Kroeber). On the lower Rio Colorado and in S. central California the Indians made immense corracle-like baskets, called by the Spaniards caritas, which were coated with bitumen or other waterproofing and used for fording the streams, laden with both passengers and merchandise.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 65-66.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College