Launching a Birch Bark Canoe and Ojibwe Culture

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Part of the professor/student crew that helped hand build the canoe. That’s me there holding the canoe’s bow (front)!

Throughout this past spring, my Native American Life class and I helped hand-build a ten foot birch bark canoe. Our professor, a member of the native Ojibwe tribe, collected the frame wood, basswood strips, and birch bark necessary from local Massachusetts forests, carried them to a workshop at the University of Massachusetts, and, over many months, the canoe was hand-built there by dozens of students. My class and I enjoyed the unique experience of lacing birch bark to the frame using basswood strips and a criss-cross pattern.

Once the frame was screwed together, the birch bark laced between us and the water, and the lacing holes covered with an impermeable plastic resin, Amherst community members and students drove and portaged the canoe to a bank of Puffers Pond, a local lake. A few minutes and pictures later, the canoe was floating effortlessly across the water.

I think the building of the birch bark canoe was worthwhile not because it required the extraordinary endurance of a long term adventure, but because of the unique materials, people, and history involved. The birch bark, basswood, and many other materials were not only harvested in local forests, but they are the same materials that many natives used centuries ago to create their own birch bark canoes–a distinct advantage that many colonials eventually adopted to traverse American waterways (their large ocean vessels were unfit to travel through relatively narrow streams). Unfortunately, birch bark canoes are rarely built anymore precisely because of colonial-native interaction, particularly imperialism and suppression of native culture. In fact, this was one of the first if not the first birch bark canoe build an American University has undertaken. It was powerful to learn about native transportation, and even more powerful to paddle the canoe through the water that has not witnessed one in at least a century.

This build was also worthwhile because of the knowledge, skill, cultural awareness, and language translation required for me to even help build the canoe. These pre-requisites provided me much more satisfaction than the research and money necessary to purchase a pre-made canoe. This does not necessarily mean that pre-made canoes are inferior to their hand-made equivalent. It simply means that a hand-built item likely provides a greater understanding of what was built, why it was built, how it was built, how it can be improved, and a strong sense of pride.

Another factor I found interesting is that natural materials were not exclusively used to build the canoe. For example, birch bark canoes were traditionally water-sealed using poplar sap instead of plastic resin, and the frame was traditionally laced together with basswood strips instead of metal screws. I do not think this lack of one-hundred percent natural and traditionally used materials makes the canoe build any less meaningful. Instead,  I think using a combination of historically used materials and modern materials can make for a more structurally robust birch bark canoe, while still symbolizing the continuing history of Ojibwe natives.

Birch bark canoe bow overlooking Massachusetts pine forests--beautiful.

Birch bark canoe bow overlooking Massachusetts pine forests. Beautiful.

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