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The Birchbark Canoe

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      OCTOBER 30 1975      v05 n18 p08  
For Indians of early Canada, travel by water was the quickest and most common means of transportation. There were no wheeled vehicles then and not until the middle of the 18th century were there any horses.

Indian people hunted and travelled on foot and depending on the season, used sleds, toboggans and different kinds of boats. Until the arrival of horses, they had to carry their belongings on their backs or load them onto canoes or dog-drawn travois.

There were several kinds of boats which Indians used when travelling on Canada's waterways - dugout canoes, bullboats, kayaks (Inuit), log rafts and bark canoes. None were as easy to build and operate, or as speedy, or as able to withstand heavy loads as was the bark canoe.

Bark canoes were Quilt and used in areas where there was an abundant growth of trees whose bark could be used. Birchbark was most popular. Its growth was found in eastern Canada, up through the forested areas of the Prairies and territories, and into the Cordillera region of British Columbia. Because of the scarcity of birch in some areas, a few tribes used elm or pine bark instead. Canoes made from these barks were not as good. They did not last as long as birchbark and the bark off a pine tree had to be smoothened first and this meant extra work for the builders. Canoes built by the Algonkian people of eastern Canada were considered to be the finest in terms of construction, strength and ease of handling. Modern factory built canoes are patterned after them.

A canoe had to be sturdy enough to bear heavy loads, yet light enough for one man to carry when portaging. The materials and methods used in building canoes were much the same everywhere. Differences were found in size, in the amount of curve at each end, and in general appearance. It was always possible to identify a canoe as belonging, to a certain language family. The various designs were not only for identification purposes. The different makes of canoes were also to make them better suited to the waters on which they were used. There were canoes for travel on open water, on rivers and streams, through rapids, in shallow and in deep waters.

After the arrival of Europeans, the whiteman quickly realized the importance of canoes in the discovery and development of new land and resources. The fur trade could not have grown so rapidly, nor could explorers such as Sir Alexander MacKenzie been able to travel so far if it had not been for the canoe and the Indian people who guided their travels. The shorter routes along waterways made possible the transporting of men, furs, trade goods and supplies from one place to another.

Birchbark canoe making was once a common task for the Indian people who used them, but it is fast becoming a lost art because people prefer to use the factory built ones of wood or aluminum. There are very few people who are still able to build canoes using the same methods and materials as their ancestors.

Isaiah Roberts is one of these people. He lives in northern Saskatchewan in the village of Stanley Mission. If you would like to watch Mr. Roberts as he builds a canoe, send for the film, My Last Canoe, from the library at the Cultural College.

Canoe painting by Ray McCallum