A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 1999

Canoes of the Native Northwest Coast People

by Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections



...most of these Indian canoes are so true
and so well shaped and proportioned that not even
an expert could detect the least flaw or imperfection.

Rev. Charles Moser,
early Northwest Coast missionary

Canoes were of great importance to Native Northwest Coast peoples, and were used for transportation, hunting and fishing. Canoes were made in a variety of sizes and styles, depending on their use and type of water they called home (ocean, river, sound).

Most canoes were made by specialists. They usually carved from a cedar log. After tapering the ends and roughly shaping the craft, the canoemaker turned the log over and carefully shaped the underside (1).

1) Shaping hull, bow and stern.

The log was turned over and the interior wood was removed to the exact proportions required by the style of canoe (2).

2) Using wedges and maul to remove interior wood.

By carving down to the measured pegs previously inserted into holes drilled in the hull, the canoemaker was assured of a hull of even thickness (3).

3) To ensure even thickness of hull:
 a) measured pegs are inserted into holes drilled in the hull,
b) inner side is carved away at holes until pegs are reached,
 c) the wood was split out between.

To spread the canoe, rocks were heated in an adjacent fire, the canoe was filled with water, and the red-hot rocks are placed inside. As the wood heats it softens, and was pried open to a specific shape (4 & 5).

4) Canoe was partially filled with water
and red-hot rock were added to create steam.

Cross sticks placed between the gunwales gradually forced the sides outward (5).

5) Spread the softened sides with cross sticks.

With the bow and stern supported, the middle of the water-filled canoe descended, slightly raising the bow and stern. After spreading was completed, thwarts and gunwale strips were added. Often the interior surface was painted oxide red.

The WRVM is fortunate to have in its collection a Native American style canoe of the style original made along the ocean coast. This canoe was carved from a single cedar log, and is 3 ft. wide and 24 ft. long -- of average length for the smaller traveling or seal-hunting watercraft. This style became popular in the Puget Sound area by the 1870's, replacing the larger examples of Salish canoes indigenous to this area. Our canoe was probably made in the late 1870's, replacing the larger examples of Salish canoes indigenous to this area. Our canoe was probably made in the late 1880s. When donated to the museum (1960s) the missing bow and stern pieces were replaced. We now understand that this style of canoe should have had a vertical stern and wolf-head style bow, with raised gunwales. Perhaps as funding permits, we will be able to renovate the canoe back to its original form. This canoe, and a model of an exquisite Puget Sound Salish canoe (donated by Bill Holm) can be seen in the museum's Native American exhibit.

Dr. Tina Brewster Wray