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Canoes of North American Indigenous People


Canoes have always been an integral part of the life of ancient tribes. Ancient people all over the world started to build canoes as early as 8200 BC (“Native American canoes,” n.d.). North American Indigenous tribes were making dugout and birch-bark canoes long before the first European settlers came to the continent. Today kayaking became a globally recognized Olympic sport that has thousands of fans. This paper aims to discuss the story of canoes, reveal the historical background behind their creation, and explain how this invention contributed to modern everyday life.

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The History of Canoes

A canoe is a lightweight narrow boat, pointed at both ends and moved by one or more paddlers, who face the direction of travel. People of different cultures created canoe-like boats all over the world since the ancient ages. The first canoes are believed to be constructed in the Netherlands between 8200 and 7600 BC (“Native American canoes,” n.d.). Different cultures used various materials to build these primitive boats. In particular, California Chumash people made canoes of planks, in the Pacific Northwest tribes often made cedar carved or dugout canoes, Ojibwa and Maliseet people made birch-bark and dugout canoes (“Native American canoes,” n.d.). Today we can find some of these boats in museums of local lore and even buy them on the Internet.

In the fifteenth century, indigenous men of North America were making canoes by hand. The everyday life of Wulustukieg or Maliseet people, who lived along the St. John’s River, was peaceful enough and had a strong bonding with nature and its rhythms. They called themselves Wolastoqiyik or Wulustukieg, which means people of the beautiful river – wolastoq (Gagnon, 2019). These North American tribes lived from hunting and gathering; they were constructing the houses from cypress, and palm thatches on the mounds build-up from discarded snail shells. Wulustukieg also had barter relations with the neighboring tribes. Canoes for Maliseet people were the means for fishing and traveling across the river.

Life in North America before the Colonization

Before the Europeans came, North America had been inhabited solely by the Iroquois, Navajo, Sioux, Cherokee, Lenape, Ojibwa-Chippewa, Seminoles, Apache, Anasazi, Pueblo, and Maliseet people. They traveled here from Asia over twenty thousand years ago across a frozen sea (“Native Americans in the US and Canada,” n.d.). Men and women from these tribes had a rich culture of ancient myths, ritual dances, poetry, and art, and were skilled hunters, farmers, and engineers.

They spoke different languages and were living throughout the continent, including Arctic, Subarctic, Northwest Coast, California, Plateau, Great Basin, Plains, and Northeast, Southwest and Southeast regions (“Native Americans in the US and Canada,” n.d.). Today, the US recognizes 500 tribes of Native Americans who have their governments and, at the same time, are included in modern society as highly qualified specialists in various fields (“Native Americans in the US and Canada,” n.d.). Thanks to the hard work of the tribal leaders, today, we can study the cultural heritage of these people.

Design Features of Traditional Canoes

Canoes were mainly sailed by the men of the tribe, who used them for fishing, traveling, and trading with the neighboring tribes. As mentioned above, Maliseet people made birch-bark and dugout canoes. Scientists notice that “the type of wood depended on the trees available in the region; in colder Northern regions, dugout canoes often featured a closed deck to protect from the elements” (“Canoes,” n.d., para. 2).

Young birch stems were bound together and then covered with light and durable birch bark to make a birch-bark canoe (“Canoes,” n.d.). On the opposite, for dugout boats, Maliseet carved out the excessive wood from a log to make the skeleton; then, they burned the recess and the outer sides to make it waterproof (“Canoes,” n.d.). In the first case, the parts could be sewn together, and in the second case, the spruce gum was used for calking.

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Interestingly, on the West coast, larger open canoes were more common. Here, the canoes were used to sail the ocean; they had high sides and ends, which prevented the boats from turning upside down on high waves. There are pieces of evidence – the old sketches of European explorers, that some boats from the Pacific Northwest region were 100 feet long and 7 feet wide, and could carry up to 60 people (“Canoes,” n.d.). Moreover, Iroquois tribes were making fast and light 30 feet boats that could carry 18 passengers and were used for merchandise (“Canoes,” n.d.). In general, canoes were very convenient, because the paddler could face the course of travel, unlike in rowboats.

Canoes and Kayaks as a Part of a Modern Life

Traditional wooden canoes are still used nowadays and can even be ordered online. Modern craftsmen create unique designs based on the sketches of ancient canoes made by indigenous people (“Traditional birch-bark canoes,” n.d.). Nonetheless, canoe-like boats from carbon, metal, plastic, and plywood are far more widespread. Kayak is another term for canoe, and nowadays, kayaking is an Olympic sport. There are thousands of amateur sportsmen and fans of canoeing and kayaking all around the world. Notably, French explorers used the methods of indigenous people to make canoes on which they traveled northward to discover the lands of Canada (Winkler, n.d.). They found canoes very stable as these boats were designed to sail lakes, rivers, coastal waters, and rapid creeks.

Incredible Maliseet People

Today, Maliseet people are integrated members of modern US society. Charles Solomon, a Wolastoqiyik elder, is one good example (De Marsh, 2017). Charles Solomon was a Wolastoqiyik healer who grew up in the community of Pilick, located 20 kilometers northwest of Fredericton on the banks of the Wolastoq (Saint John’s) River (De Marsh, 2017). He was also a practitioner and teacher of medicinal plant knowledge in New Brunswick, Canada. This man knew a lot about medicinal plants like muskrat root, sweetgrass, and black ash that were widely used by indigenous people.

Interestingly, the water was also perceived by Maliseet people as medicine. Today about 5000 Wolastoqiyik people live in communities they established in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Maine (De Marsh, 2017). Less than 1000 people still speak Wolastoq, a member of the Algonquian language family (De Marsh, 2017). Scientists note that “Wolastoqiyik, with the Mi’gmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Eastern Abenaki, made up the Wabanaki Confederacy created in the latter part of the 17th century” (De Marsh, 2017). Original Wabanaki lands – or Dawn lands, settled by Europeans include territories of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, the Gaspe, and parts of Northern Maine.

Thus, the story behind the canoe creation was discussed as well as their role in modern everyday life. First canoes were made from wood – the whole carved logs, or young stems that were sewn together and covered with bark. They were used for fishing, trading, and traveling, and could be 100 feet long, carrying up to 60 people. Nowadays, canoes are mainly built from carbon and plastic, but there are still craftsmen who create boats inspired by original designs. Kayaking has become an Olympic sport, maybe because kayaks can be used almost everywhere – in calm and stormy waters of rivers and lakes, in coastal waters, and rapid creeks.


Canoes (n.d.). Web.

De Marsh, B. L. (2017). Life narrative ethnography of Wolastoqiyik elder Charles Solomon, medicine man: An apprenticeship approach [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. The University of New Brunswick.

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Gagnon, C. (2019). Native peoples in the upper Saint John’s River valley. Web.

Native American canoes (n.d.). Web.

Native Americans in the US and Canada (n.d.). Web.

Traditional birch-bark canoes (n.d.). Web.

Winkler, S. (n.d.) How canoeing works. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2022, January 15). Canoes of North American Indigenous People. Retrieved from


StudyCorgi. (2022, January 15). Canoes of North American Indigenous People.

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"Canoes of North American Indigenous People." StudyCorgi, 15 Jan. 2022,

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Canoes of North American Indigenous People." January 15, 2022.


StudyCorgi. (2022) 'Canoes of North American Indigenous People'. 15 January.

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