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Inside the Birchbark Canoe

Inside the Birchbark Canoe

Called wiigwaasi-jiimaan by the Ojibwe, this light, buoyant, and fast vessel was the peerless watercraft of choice for thousands of years.
Feature Article

Inside the Birchbark Canoe

Called wiigwaasi-jiimaan by the Ojibwe, this light, buoyant, and fast vessel was the peerless watercraft of choice for thousands of years.
Spring 2023 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Anton Treuer
Group carrying a canoe.

Launched in October 2021, this canoe—built by Valliere and team at Northwestern University—is likely the first of its kind to be launched in Lake Michigan since the Ojibwe were forced out of the region by the 1833 Treaty of Chicago. | Photo by Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune/TCA.

Handmade canoe sitting in large body of water.

A 14-foot birchbark canoe floats on Crawling Stone Lake in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin. | Photo by Tim Frandy.

America has historical amnesia. Citizens today often struggle to face uncomfortable facts of history, such as the genocide of Native Americans, their internment in residential boarding schools, and slavery. The absent and distorted narratives have many Americans singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” while many others grapple with historical and contemporary traumas that have yet to be properly addressed. We can’t get to reconciled if we skip all the reconciling; we can’t get to healed if we skip all the healing.

We all lose when we lose sight of our history. We are all products of that history whether we see it or not. So losing narratives means losing ourselves, in a way. America and many of her citizens are having an identity crisis.

Art and music have a special power to transcend our differences. We speak to one another in these media with and without words; and in these fertile environments, healing can grow. In Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, Jennifer Raff shares that Native American DNA has been separated from that of other humans for around 35,000 years. At the time of Columbus’s arrival, there were 100 million Indigenous people in the Americas; the entire population of Europe was only 88 million. This continent was not home to scattered bands of roaming nomads in the wilderness, but to numerous different sophisticated and populous cultures. The art of Native Americans predated all others in this place, has been sustained throughout America’s history, and continues to thrive today. It is timely and necessary that we reenter this space. It can unlock a deeper understanding of our history and identity, and help unlock the healing we all need.

The Significance and Swiftness of the Birchbark Canoe
The birch is a remarkable tree. Indigenous to the United States and Canada, its range stretches from coast to coast in cold-weather climates. The Ojibwe and neighboring tribes near the Great Lakes discovered that the bark can be peeled from living trees without killing the tree itself. Once separated from the tree, it is highly resistant to rot. Natural oils and moisture in the bark make it pliable but strong. It was a preferred building material for covering wigwams and manufacturing vessels that ranged from cups to maple sap containers, called biskitenaaganan, to the birchbark canoe. The manufacture of the birchbark canoe became a refined and highly specialized art form. It might seem quaint or even cool to some, but few people realize that it was the engine that drove military and financial power for everyone in the region for generations. The fates of tribes and empires were determined by this vessel.

Group of people pours hot water to soften the wood used for constructing the canoe.

Wayne Valliere, a teacher with the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, and his team pour hot water to soften the wood of a traditional Ojibwe canoe during construction at Northwestern University in 2021. | Photo by Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune/TCA.

The birchbark canoe was central to the formation of Ojibwe identity. Although the DNA of Ojibwe people is ancient in North America, the emergence of the Ojibwe language and culture happened more recently as the Ojibwe began a migration over 1,500 years from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Lakes. They traveled by birchbark canoe. Wooden dugout canoes were difficult on the big water of the Great Lakes—heavy, easy to capsize, with a deep draft, and limited in size by the size of the trees themselves. The birchbark canoe could be made small for inland lakes and rivers or scaled up for big water or hauling furs. It was more buoyant than a dugout, with a lighter draft, and harder to capsize. In trade and travel, there was no match.

The French arrived in Sault Ste. Marie around 1600. This was the Ojibwe population nexus, in the heart of birch country. Although we often think Europeans had technological advantages over Natives, it was much the opposite. The French abandoned their boats and watercraft and adopted the birchbark canoe. Their quick assimilation of the Indigenous mode of transportation was critical to their trade success. Rather than fight the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi, they instructed their men to marry Native women and cement trade and military alliances through marriage. While this custom was driven by the imperatives of French patriarchy and colonial ambition more than any special love for the Natives, the result was transformational for both. Even today, there are millions of people who have both French and Native ancestry across the birch forestlands of the United States and Canada.

The Ojibwe were powerful military allies for the French and instrumental in their defeat of the British and the allied Iroquois Confederacy during the Beaver Wars throughout most of the 1600s. When the French and British established a significant (though temporary) peace in 1713, access to Ojibwe trade and canoes were topics of great importance.

The Ojibwe used the birchbark canoe in their role as middlemen in Dakota trade with the French, and this light, buoyant, fast vessel was critical to their success. When war broke out between the two tribes in the middle of the 1700s, the Ojibwe had a major technological advantage over the Dakota because of canoes and geography. The Dakota used wooden dugouts and had to paddle upstream to attack Ojibwe villages. The Ojibwe would typically rally their warriors and pursue the Dakota, easily overtaking them in faster birchbark canoes. When the Ojibwe attacked the Dakota, they would float downstream for a couple of days, strike, and flee in their faster craft. From 1600 to 1825, the Ojibwe multiplied the size of their territory twentyfold at the expense of other tribes.



The manufacture of the birchbark canoe became a refined and highly specialized art form. Few people realize that it was the engine that drove military and financial power for everyone in the region for generations.

Wood frame of canoe.

In general, birchbark canoe construction begins with the bark. Then the wood frame is built inside, and steamed and bent cedar ribs are added. | Photos courtesy of Northwestern University.

The advantages of birchbark canoe technology were not just geographic (living where birch trees grow); they were technological. The idea that you could make a frame and cover it with birch bark was not hard to imagine or see. But making it work required highly skilled, trained, and practiced canoe artisans. There are some good documentaries on the Ojibwe practice for this, including Wiigwaasi-jiimaan: These Canoes Carry Culture and Earl’s Canoe.

The production of a birchbark canoe does not begin with the frame. It begins with the bark, which is assembled in a staked, sand-lined bed with the outside of the bark facing the inside of the canoe. It is weighted down with rocks, and the sections of bark are sewn together with split black spruce roots or jack pine roots. The frame is constructed inside this bark envelope, usually with steamed and bent cedar ribs, ash gunwales, and cedar sheathing. The ends of the canoe are sophisticated laminations of ash, often with dozens of laminations to make the ends and manboards. All seams are sealed with a mix of rendered pitch, deer tallow, and charcoal. It’s a major undertaking, and if the wrong materials, design, or seal are used, it just won’t float. But when the artisans knew the craft, this vessel was the peerless watercraft of choice for thousands of years.

Today, fiberglass, Kevlar, and other materials have been used to mass-manufacture canoes, and the art form of birchbark canoe construction is rare knowledge in most places. Ojibwe artisans such as Wayne Valliere, a teacher with the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, keep the craft and traditional knowledge alive; there are hobbyists who study Indigenous knowledge as well. Yet the design of the canoe has endured for thousands of years. While its function in history has surely changed, the legacy and impact of this art form is at the center of the history of North American tribes, and of the French, British, and American trade and military empires.

Anywhere there is water, Native people traversed it, fished it, and called it home. Many tribes developed incredible watercraft—the products of their unique bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing. Learning about these living cultures and art forms can enlighten and heal us all. The vessels are as deep and significant as the water itself. ◆

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