Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Indians in Eden (continued)

A Canoe of One's Own

Owning one's  own Indian-made birch bark canoe was a status symbol on Mount Desert Island, so the canoes were in considerable demand. It took considerable time to make one, but the financial rewards provided enough incentive for the Indian craftsman. The best were made of one large flexible sheet of paper birch bark, ideally more than one-eighth inch thick and tightly sewn and lashed with very long, thin, and durable roots of black spruce, or sometimes deer sinew, to hand-hewn gunwales, the ends of which were nailed and also securely wrapped with spruce. The well rounded bottom was framed with flat, wide spruce or cedar sheathing and ribs. For structural strength, these canoes usually had five thwarts, the ends of which were mortised into the gunwales and also fastened with spiral lashing. To make the bark cover watertight, all seams and sewing were coated with spruce gum. The paddles were usually carved from hard maple wood. Some tribesmen engraved or dyed their personal mark, their families animal totem, or some stylized figure on the bow of their canoe.
If selling a birch bark box or wood split basket was comparable to snaring a rabbit, selling a birch bark canoe was like bringing down a bull moose___a family could live off the proceeds for quite some time. As noted in a 1881 local paper: "Birch bark canoes made by the Indians at Bar Harbor sell at prices ranging from $25 to $40.
The canoe has become so popular a craft among sportsmen and tourists, even indispensable with the former class, that the building of this light and graceful craft is now quite an important industry in Maine, especially the Penobscot River. Thirty-five dollars, the usual price, is none too much for a good canoe.

Click on the images below to view a larger size

"Nowadays, the big, clear, straight birches are from twenty to one-hundred miles distant from up-river towns, and two suitable trees are seldom found within sight of each other___In winter, the bark's inner side has a reddish-brown coat, but in summer it is smooth and yellow. The winter bark is preferred because it is tougher, and because of the opportunities for ornamentation___The canoe builder fells a white birch which is at least one foot in diameter eighteen inches from the butt, allowing it to fall across some small logs to keep it from the ground and then strips off its outer coat. The bark must be warmed, toasted as it were, before it can be straightened out and rolled up in proper shape for transportation__The  builder drives stakes into the ground and thus forms a frame the shape of his canoe. The bark, after more toasting, is smoothed out and fitted to the frame, after which the gunwales, strips of spruce or cedar, are put in place and the top edge of the bark secured to them by copper nails. Then the whole inside of the birch is lined with lengthwise strips of thin shaved cedar, and next, about fifty cedar timbers are 'sprung' into place over these, and the ends being secured under the gunwales. All cuts made in bringing the bark to the required shape are sewn up with cane threads and gummed over with a paste composed of resin and oil. Ash thwarts, very narrow, are put in, strips of canvas glued on over the ends of the canoe where the two sides of the bark meet and the craft is done. Paddles are shaved from poplar, maple and ash."
(The Bangor Journal 1985)

Maliseet canoe-builder Nicholas Lola (with his wife and child), scraping slats for the interior of the birch bark canoe, July 1875, Houlton, Maine.  (National Anthropological Archives)

                                                               Penobscot Indians ca, 1918

 A string of partridge bagged during a successful day afield in the Maine woods.  ca, 1883

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