Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Book Review: The Politics of the Canoe, Bruce Erickson and Sarah Wylie Krotz (editors)

Book jacket of The Politics of the Canoe by Erickson and Krotz

The Politics of the Canoe, edited by Bruce Erickson and Sarah Wylie Krotz, is a book of a different sort than that from which I normally obtain content for this blog or choose to review. A collection of essays, mostly academic in nature, it does not address the nuts and bolts of boat design, construction, or usage. As its title indicates, its central theme is the political implications of canoes. The book has no subtitle, but one would have been useful to clarify that its focus is upon the canoe in Canada, although a couple of the essays deal with some of the northern United States. The editors’ Preface describes it as “a multifaceted examination of a vessel that, while structurally simple, is remarkably complex in its meanings” (p.x).

Meanings, of course, are not inherent in objects, but instead are created, imposed by people, and any meanings that canoes have are therefore subjective. To the extent that “everything is political”, then canoes certainly have the potential to be viewed from a political point of view, just as a hammer can be “merely” a hammer, or it can symbolize the proletariat. Many of the essays’ authors read Colonialist meanings in the traditional Canadian discourse regarding canoes and argue for a new canoe discourse with First Nations at its center. Many of them are themselves First Nations people of Canada, and many are in academia, so the pro-indigenous, anti-colonial outlook that informs several of the essays is not unexpected. That said, the theme of “the political canoe” is addressed through varied, even eccentric, approaches, making for mostly diverse and engaging reading.

The book’s Introduction, written by its editors, uses the presentation of canoes in museums as a framework for addressing the politics inherent in the Canadian perception of canoes. Canoes in museum collections, they say, are problematic: “Given that canoes aren’t just cultural objects but are fundamental to many communities’ relations—as family members, as embodied heritage and sovereignty, as living parts of the land—the implications of placing them on display differ depending on the traditions from which the canoes came. In other words, context matters” (p.3).

Drawing on the work of other scholars, Erickson and Krotz outline the historic process by which the indigenous Canadian canoe was adopted by European settlers, notably by the voyageurs for the fur trade, after which it morphed into a recreational craft for a mainly middle class, white audience. As this transition occurred in a Canada increasingly settled and “civilized” by Europeans, the canoe’s indigenous origin was submerged by a mythology valorizing the voyageurs, who were depicted as having used the fur-trade canoe to bring order and civilization to a wild, unsettled land. Indigenous presence and history were erased from the narrative, and the indigenous invention and use of the canoe were part of the process. The greatest significance of the erasure of the indigenous canoe does not lie in the settlers’ tacit claim to the technology; more importantly, because the canoe was central to the cultures of many of Canada’s First Nations and formed both practical and cognitive bases of the people’s connection to the land which they inhabited, erasing the indigeneity of the canoe also erased culture and past occupation of the landscape – which, in turn, erased claims of land sovereignty.

This interpretation informs many of the essays, most of which address the position of the canoe at the intersection of indigenous and settler culture. But other factors are also at play, and other perspectives addressed. As the editors note, "Colonialism certainly looms large over the history of the canoe, but canoes are also intertwined in histories of masculinity, wilderness, consumption, and industrialization, among others” (p.6). And further, “the canoes in this book are agents not just of romantic affiliation with wilderness but of protest, power, governance, social and environmental knowledge, history, cultural resurgence, and sovereignty. Their politics range from collective actions to intensely personal, individual ones” (p.13).

The book is organized in three parts, and each of its ten chapters is preceded by a map which provides the geographic setting of its subject. Some of the essays are accompanied by photographs. The entire production is in black and white.

Each of the three essays/chapters in Part 1, which is titled “Asserting Indigenous Sovereignty”, concern different First Nations’ initiatives of cultural revitalization through canoe voyaging. Chapter 1, “Tribal Canoe Journeys and Indigenous Cultural Resurgence: A Story from the Heiltsuk Nation”, by Frank Brown, Hillary Beattie, Vina Brown, and Ian Mauro, begins with a brief history of the Heilstuk people (often called the Bella Bella) under colonialism. It then focuses on the history of the cultural gathering and voyaging program called Tribal Canoe Journeys (TCJ), which has been going on regularly since 1993. The authors emphasize the value of the program in reconnecting people of many of the Pacific Northwest’s First Nations, especially young people, to tribal traditions and ways of thought, and establishing solidarity between First Nations. They show how the voyaging itself, along with the shoreside activities associated with it, heal personal traumas, enhance participants’ self worth, and provide a venue for learning traditional language, song, dance, and history. Also strengthened during the meetings are intergenerational relationships; understanding and appreciation of the natural environment and resources; and strategies associated with environmental protection and land sovereignty.

Chapter 2, “This Is What Makes Us Strong: Canoe Revitalization, Reciprocal Heritage, and the Chinook Indian Nation”, by Rachel L. Cushman, Jon D. Daehnke, and Tony A. Johnson, covers much the same ground about Tribal Canoe Journeys and its predecessor, Paddle to Seattle, but focuses on the experience of the Chinook Nation. It uses lengthy first-person passages by co-author Cushman, who has participated in several of the voyages, to personalize the experience, and it makes the important point that “rather than being backward-looking and nostalgic, this form of reciprocal heritage is instead tribally relevant, based in current and ongoing relationships and responsibilities, and thus active, forward-looking, and resilient” (pp.51-52). Discussing “protocols” – traditional rules of behaviour that are taught at and which govern shoreside sessions on the voyages – the authors state, “…the performance of protocol is not just an aspect of culture, it is fundamentally an act of decolonization” (p.57). They make a distinction that I personally found enlightening and important:

“There can be a tendency to present these types of claims to heritage as something artificial, as invented political creations primarily constructed to convince others of the rightfulness of the claims. For the Chinook Indian Nation, however, the performance of protocols is not an act created or designed to convince others of the rightfulness of their heritage claims or their Indigeneity. Instead, it is simply behaviour done to ensure that the requirements of the reciprocal relationships between actors, both human and non-human, are fulfilled” (p.65).

They contrast this with voyageur re-enactments, which they describe as a display of nostalgia, a “yearning for the period of colonialism itself” (p.66).

“Whaèhdǫ ǫ̀ Etǫ K’e”, the title of Chapter 3, means “Trails of our Ancestors” and is the name of another voyaging-and-revitalization program, this one by the “Tłı̨chǫ Nation”. I find the use of such special typographic characters by authors John B. Zoe and Jessica Dunkin unhelpful, and partially blame the book’s editors for its presence. I had to refer to Wikipedia to learn that “Tłı̨chǫ” … people, sometimes spelled Tlicho and also known as the Dogrib, are a Dene First Nations people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group living in the Northwest Territories, Canada.” The purpose of Trails of our Ancestors is to reconnect Tlicho youth with the landscape around them, and to the stories, traditions and culture embedded within it. This, the authors explain, is “both a physical and symbolic act of resistance to colonial efforts to remove Tłı̨chǫ from the land” (p.85). I was struck by the statement that “Women and men worked together to build canoes” (p.77) in traditional Tlicho culture and wished for more detail, as direct female participation in boatbuilding is rare in traditional cultures.

Thus, the first three chapters all deal with different manifestations of the same phenomenon and, while each has a unique and valuable perspective, it is also somewhat repetitive. The reader will find greater variety of subject matter in the remaining parts of the book.

The theme of Part 2, Building Canoes, Knowledge, and Relationships, seems an amorphous one that doesn’t really provide a coherent theme for its three chapters – for which we might be thankful, given the excessive thematic consistency of Part 1. Chapter 4, “Model Canoes, Territorial Histories, and Linguistic Resurgence: Decolonizing the Tappan Adney Archives”, by Chris Ling Chapman, discusses the ethnographic work conducted in New Brunswick, Canada, by the author of the excellent and influential The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Adney, the authors explain, was conducting what is known as “salvage anthropology” – the desperate collection of data in the face of imminent cultural disappearance, as was widely believed (among settlers) at that time to apply to the First Nations of Canada. In addition to the renowned model canoes he built from first-hand observation of full-size canoes, it is Adney’s unpublished notebooks that represent what were considered to be “salvage archives”. As it turned out, most of Canada’s First Nations survived, and Adney’s archives, far from being a record of dead cultures, are now providing valuable resources for the revitalization of those cultures. Among the most important of their content is Adney’s recording of native languages, which is aiding current efforts to revive those languages after decades of white efforts to exterminate them along with other aspects of indigenous culture.

In spite of Chuck Commanda’s prodigious skill as a builder of bark canoes and his substantial contribution to the revival of the craft, Chapter 5, “Ginawaydaganuc: The Birchbark Canoe in Algonquin Community Resurgence and Reconciliation”, by Commanda, Larry McDermott, and Sarah Nelson, is the weakest essay in the collection. Unfortunately, the chapter reads like a manifesto, a lengthy series of didactic assertions of the power and importance of bark canoe building as a tool for revitalizing and preserving cultural heritage. Any of its numerous assertions might well be valid, but none of them are adequately supported by evidence or logical argument. One example taken truly at random will illustrate this: “Teaching a young Indigenous person how to become a canoe builder can give them a path in life and a reason to have both hope for the future and pride in their people” (p.113). As a goal, this is admirable, but there is no indication here that it is true: the authors provide no data, examples, or even anecdotes, to support it, and this is the case with dozens of similar assertions throughout the chapter. Two lengthy appendices, consisting of the texts of two sections of the 2010 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, are peripheral to the chapter’s main argument and could have been satisfactorily replaced with URLs for online locations of the texts.

Chapter 6, “Pathways to the Forest: Meditations on the Colonial Landscape”, by Jonathan Goldner, is a first-person account of learning how and where to harvest birchbark for canoe construction. Goldner uses his description of that education, and of the harvesting process itself, to evocatively discuss the history and impact of colonialism on the Algonquin landscape of Quebec and Ontario. Harvesting bark serves as a microcosm for that impact and a metaphor of native rights to the land. It’s a thoughtful, personal, almost poetic piece by “a relative newcomer, a settler, a non-Indigenous, academically inclined male urbanite” (p.136) attempting to understand the indigenous point of view.

Part 3, “Telling Histories”, begins with Chapter 7, “Beyond Birchbark: How Lahontan’s images of Unfamiliar Canoes Confirm His Remarkable Western Expedition of 1688”, by Peter H. Wood. Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan, Baron de Lahontan, explored areas west and south of the Great Lakes in 1688-89. His book about his travels, which includes descriptions of the geography and the indigenous people he encountered, was published in 1703 and went into several translations and editions but, because of his anti-Jesuit opinions, Pope Clement XI banned it. Between that official censure and some inaccuracies in his geography that became clear after later explorations, his account has been largely discounted as fiction, and aspersions cast upon the trustworthiness of both the man and his travel account. Author Wood believes the book is a largely accurate description of the Midwest’s geography as Lahontan saw it, with a few errors such as are likely to appear in any such work of this time and era. He identifies the river Lahontan travelled along and called the River Longue as the middle and upper Missouri River. He bases this conclusion mainly on two canoe illustrations on a map in the book, the accuracy of which, he argues, must have been due to Lahontan’s actual travel through the region. This argument is weak. The illustrations are rough and schematic, and Woods’ identification of them with specific indigenous boat designs questionable. The one identified as a dugout canoe of the continent’s interior could just as well depict a bark canoe, for all its lack of detail. Regarding the other, Lahontan explained that it represents a canoe from the Pacific Northwest, which he never claimed to have come even close to, and the information for it was obtained from an indigenous slave from that region whom he spoke with while in the Dakotas. In fact, the illustration is not nearly so convincing a depiction of a Kwakiutl logboat as Wood claims it is, and Lahontan’s stated source provides no assurance whatsoever that he travelled the Missouri or visited the Dakotas. I have not read Lahontan’s book and I have no opinion on its veracity, but Wood’s evidence for its truthfulness is weak.

Another weakness concerning the essay is its “political” aspect. The pope’s banning of Lahontan’s book was a political act which influenced popular perception of its accuracy, but that has nothing to do with canoes. Wood employs iconographic evidence of canoes in order to establish Lahontan’s credibility and overcome the ramifications of that political act of censorship, but that seems a tenuous connection to the book’s theme.

Chapter 8, “Monumental Trip: Don Starkell’s Canoe Voyage from Winnipeg to the Mouth of the Amazon”, by Albert Braz, is perhaps the most accessible and engaging of the essays, mainly because it recounts (in condensed form) the narrative of Starkell’s 1987 book, Paddle to the Amazon. Braz feels that the book, its author, and his achievement (paddling a canoe 12,000 miles from Winnipeg to Belem, Brazil) have not attained the recognition and respect in Canada that are their due. This, he argues, is due to Starkell's lower-class (white, Canadian) origin, pugnacious attitude, and straightforward prose, which do not mesh well with the largely middle-class identification of modern Canadian recreational canoeing, nor with the more literary style of most popular expedition narratives. Starkell obtained scant attention, much less support, from the Canadian government while traveling through Latin America, and a secondary political aspect of the essay treats with Canada's negligible visibility and influence in Latin America.

In Chapter 9, “The Dam That Wasn’t: How the Canoe Became Political on the Petawawa River”, Cameron Baldassarra describes how multiple constituencies, including recreational canoeists, kayakers, and rafters, environmentalists, historical preservationists, hunters and fishers, a town, and First Nations people, formed an alliance to oppose a planned hydropower dam near Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. The canoe became a central symbol and rallying point for that opposition due to its multiple meanings and uses: as a symbol of wilderness; as a vehicle to enter and utilize the landscape and its resources in a sustainable manner; as recreation; as a sustainable economic activity; as indigenous heritage. It is ironic that what stopped the dam was not grassroots politics, but the Canadian military, whose nearby base would have been partially flooded by the dam. But this, the author asserts, does not negate the wide appeal, symbolic power, and organizing potential of the canoe.

In the final essay, “Unpacking and Repacking the Canoe: Canoe as Research Vessel” (Chapter 10), anthropologist Danielle Gendron uses a canoe trip along the 386-km length of the Trent-Severn Waterway (TSW), a partly-artificial inland route between Lakes Huron and Ontario, as a personal approach to explore "my engagement with and study of Indigenous landscapes" (p.215). The author colorfully details a bit of the lives of her Metis (mixed European and First Nations) fourth-level great-grandfather, who worked for the Hudson Bay Company, and his Metis wife, and says they surely would have travelled through this landscape prior to creation of the TSW.

Gendron describes how European settlers altered this former Anishinaabe landscape, first for agriculture, then for commercial shipping, and finally for recreation, and in the process erased indigenous people from the landscape. As a nationally designated historical location, the TSW ignores the indigenous past and creates a “colonialscape”, a term Gendron borrows from Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Sarah Hunt. This returns to the theme addressed by others in the book, of how the canoe, the landscape, and the past have all been appropriated in a manner that positions whiteness as the official Canadian identity. “How can we disrupt these colonialscapes that are perpetuated through the practice of canoeing?” Gendron asks. “How can we understand canoe trips as negotiating colonized Indigenous territories rather than a natural wonderland?”

As partial answers, she recommends sources from which readers can learn about native occupation, embeddedness, and history in the landscape, and urges the importance of learning the native names for places one travels through. She does not make the unrealistic recommendation that everyone become an expert in native history, but instead suggests that the canoe can be used as a vehicle to “engage in understanding colonial processes and the colonialscape of Canada” (p.227) – a suggestion that aptly summarizes the central theme of this worthwhile and thought-provoking collection of essays.

The Politics of the Canoe
Bruce Erickson and Sarah Wylie Krotz, editors
University of Manitoba Press
ISBN 978-0-88735-909-9 (paperbound: also in e-book, hardcover)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Book Review: The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia, by Harri Luukkanen and William W. Fitzhugh

There are strong but superficial similarities between The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia, a new book by Harri Luukkanen and William W. Fitzhugh, and the 1964 classic The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle. Obviously, there is the title, clearly meant as a respectful acknowledgement of the older work. The two books have the same publisher (Smithsonian), and the same format, both being oversize, printed in black and white, with the text laid out in two columns per page. Luukkanen and Fitzhugh even call their work a “sequel” to Adney & Chapelle. In spite of all this, Northern Eurasia really is a different sort of book from North America. This makes it no less excellent than the older work that it honors, but to appreciate this, the reader must overcome any preconceptions that the similarities might instill. Taken on its own terms, is excellent scholarship and a valuable contribution to the field of small craft studies.

The book’s Introduction contains an explicit homage to “Adney & Chapelle” and a description of that book’s origins. It then goes on to describe the rationale for the present study, which basically boils down to two facts: in spite of the vast region’s long and pervasive use of these types of watercraft, the subject has never been systematically studied; and most studies of particular boats or types in the region are not available in English – or, indeed, in any Western European language. The Introduction then defines the geographic area of the study and the types of boats under consideration.

Chapter 1 describes the geography of northern Eurasia, including overviews of its climate zones, and river systems, cultures and their histories, and a brief contextualization of the region’s archaeology and the relationship between boat studies in northern Eurasia and North America.

Chapter 2, titled “Boat Classification, Construction, and Regional Distribution”, is essentially a summary and synthesis of Chapters 3-9, each of which focuses on a different geographic sub-region of northern Eurasia. The authors present a typology of the region’s various bark canoes and skin boats, based on major construction methods and morphology, and divided along lines of geography and culture groups. The authors conclude that bark canoe types tend to be fairly consistent within major river basins, even if more than one culture is resident, and that this intra-basin consistency is greater than that found among single cultures whose territories run across two or more river basins. The authors also draw attention to the large varieties of open and decked skin boats, both of which were found to be widely distributed across the region among a great many of its cultures.

One might question the placement of this chapter before, rather than after, the presentation of data in chapters 3-9. For scholars who are knowledgable about Eurasian cultures, this will make good sense, as a summary and synthesis may be primarily what is needed, and the reader can use it as a guide to targeted reading of the following chapters. For many readers, though, it may prove confusing or frustrating, as much of the geography and many of the cultures discussed will be unfamiliar to most Westerners. For readers (myself included) who don’t know the Vepsians, the Evenks, the Yugra, the Kereks, and many other cultures mentioned, the chapter is somewhat bewildering, in spite of brief overviews in the Introduction. Such readers might be advised to read this chapter later.

The real meat of the book appears in chapters 3-9, concerning Northern Europe (Ch. 3; Germany, southern Baltics, Fennoscandia); Northeastern Europe (Ch. 4; eastern Baltics, western Urals); Western Siberia (Ch. 5); Central Siberia (Ch. 6); Eastern Siberia (Ch. 7); Pacific Siberia (Ch. 8; Chukotka, Kamchatka, and the Kuril Islands); and the Far East (Ch. 9; Manchuria, Sakhalin Island, China, and northern Japan).

As the authors note, it is ironic that northern Europe – the area probably most familiar to most readers, and the one for which there is the best historic literature – has the poorest archaeological record for bark canoes and skin boats. The reader is introduced to the authors’ method, in which data are presented in detail and analyzed at length. There are lengthy descriptions of the ethnohistorical data and the archaeological evidence. For example, prehistoric Scandinavian rock art depictions of boats have been addressed by several authors, and no agreement has yet been reached within the archaeology community as to whether these petroglyphs represent logboats, skin boats, bark canoes, or even watercraft at all. Luukkanen and Fitzhugh review the arguments in detail and at length and bring new data and interpretations to the debate, but are cautious of reaching firm conclusions. This may be disappointing for those looking for straightforward answers, but it is intellectually honest to an extent not always seen in maritime archaeology – much less in books written for non-specialist, “enthusiast” audiences.

Most chapters follow a regular organization: the geographic sub-region is introduced and the deep history of its cultures described. This is highly useful to those readers who are unfamiliar with the numerous cultures. The general archaeology for the region’s cultural history is presented, followed by separate sections on each of individual cultures to be discussed. Within each section, the archaeological evidence for boat usage – much of which is often indirect – is presented first, followed by historical and ethnohistorical data. As archaeological evidence is generally scanty, it is not until the latter stages that we typically get images of boats, details of construction, and descriptions of usage. The ethnohistorical data varies a great deal in quality, from mere mentions by early explorers or merchants of the existence of certain boat types among the various nations, to the careful (but unfortunately rare) descriptions of boat structure and construction by trained observers. Likewise, the accompanying figures vary from the highly romanticized and technically inaccurate renderings one sees in travelogues and maps from the 16th and 17th centures, to careful, precise boat surveys that show the boats’ lines and construction details, and photographs of full-size boats in use in the early 20th century and models in museum collections.

The final chapter, called an Epilogue, by Arctic boat scholar Evguenia (Jenya) Anichtchenko, addresses the relationship between the Eurasian and North American boat traditions. This presents the data and theories for diffusion between the two regions, and notes the surprisingly thin evidence for much direct influence across the narrow Bering Strait.

Overall, The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia provides a comprehensive, fine-grained look at its subject as ethnology, concentrating on the evidence from archaeology and ethnohistory. Those expecting a Eurasian equivalent to The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America may be disappointed. The older book’s strengths are in its descriptions of construction methods and structural details, and especially, in the quality of the boat plans. These were possible because Adney and Chapelle were writing about boat traditions which, although on their last legs, were still extant. Construction by individuals brought up in the indigenous traditions could still be observed and documented, and the boats themselves could still be surveyed in detail. The result was a book that has often served as a construction manual – complete with designs – for countless individuals to build their own replicas.

This was not possible for the boats of Eurasia. Most of the boats discussed disappeared generations or centuries ago – before there was a chance for much ethnographic recording. This means that construction methods are generally described in far less detail – if at all – and boat plans are few. Unfortunately for the enthusiast, those that are present are generally reproduced too small to be of practical use, and this criticism can be applied to the art program of the book in general. With few exceptions, figures are reproduced to the width of one column on the two-column pages, making legibility poor for drawings and photographs alike. Drawings produced especially for the book, mostly for the purpose of typological description or clarification, are sketchy and not of professional quality, making it difficult to understand differences in boat types. Maps, on the other hand, are excellent and are reproduced at full page width, for good legibility. All illustrations are in black and white only, which is not a liablity, since only a very few recent photos of boat models in museum collections would have been created in color.

The amount of detail and the length of some discussions can be heavy going, but they provide excellent perspectives on what is known, what can be surmised, and what is debatable. By highlighting open questions, the authors have set out challenges, or even roadmaps, to other researchers who, I expect, will respond with future research papers and possibly some PhD theses.

The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia is a major contribution to ethnological boat studies. Particularly for those familiar mainly with the boats of North America and western Europe, it is a broad and comprehensive introduction to the archaeology and history of small craft of a region rarely discussed in the English-language literature. It will take its place as an essential reference, next to The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, not as a sequel, but in its own right.


The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of Northern Eurasia
by Harri Luukkanen and William W. Fitzhugh
Smithsonian Books, Washington DC
$64.00; 276 pages
ISBN 978-1-58834-475-5

Sunday, July 12, 2020

“Woodskin” Canoes of Guyana

Logboats are probably the best-known Amerindian watercraft in Guyana, but another boat type in common use – at least into the first half of the 20th century – is the bark canoe. Although terminology differs among various writers, the term “woodskin” is commonly applied to all Guyanese bark canoes.

Bark canoe on the Mazaruni River, Guyana
Akawai open-ended woodskin on the Mazaruni River (Roth, W., 1924:plate 177) Click any image to enlarge.

The most common type of woodskin appears to have been the one with open ends, which was used by many of Guyana’s Amerindian peoples, both near the coast and in the inland “hinterlands”. This was usually made from the bark of the purpleheart tree (Copaifera pubiflora). Several aspects of its construction are unusual, if not unique.

The tree is felled with the bark still attached. Cuts the desired length of the canoe are then made along both sides of the trunk, then these lineal cuts are connected by circumferential cuts at both ends around the top and sides of the trunk and the bark is pried off with wood wedges. There is thus no need to roll the trunk to get at the surface that rests on the ground. Once it is off the trunk, the bark is propped open with sticks between the opposite edges to keep it from closing up again.

This is quite different from the method of harvesting birch bark for North American canoes. There, the tree is left standing and is not killed by being barked. A single slit the length of the canoe (or as long a piece as the tree allows) is made along the height of the trunk, and cuts are made around the entire circumference of the trunk at the top and bottom of the slit, so that the bark is removed in a single piece that completely surrounds the trunk, thus maximizing its width. This is possible because birch bark is relatively thin and quite flexible, while the bark of purpleheart is so thick and stiff that a full circumference could not be opened up around a single split to remove it from the trunk without cracking.

Detail of bark preparation for bark canoe, Guyana
Outer bark removed (right); inner bark folded (left) (Roth, W., 1924:615)

The purpleheart bark is of two layers – a thick, stiff outer one, and a more flexible inner one. The two are removed together from the trunk, then wedges of the outer layer are cut and removed from both edges 2-3 feet (70-100cm) in from both ends, leaving the inner layer intact. With one man standing amidships, another raises one of the ends so that the flexible inner bark folks in upon itself. Holes are punctured through the four layers of bark and the overlapping sections are stitched together with “bush rope” – presumably thin roots, withies, or possibly natural fibers taken from palm leaves or similar. The other end is treated the same way.

Fully-outfitted bark canoe, Guayana
Fully-outfitted woodskin with inwales, thwarts, spreaders and tightening ropes (Roth, W., 1924:616).

Details seem to differ from one boat to the next, or possibly according to the practices of different communities or Amerindian peoples, but one common modification is the addition of inwales, which are stitched along the upper edge of the bark amidships, and extend into the raised ends below the top edges, where they help keep the open ends elevated above the waterline. Sometimes sitting thwarts are added, suspended by hangers attached to the inwales. Beams are tied in place to keep the sides apart amidships. Conversely, ropes are used to keep the sides from spreading out too far toward the ends.

Dimensions are typically about 15-16 feet (450-500cm) LOA (although lengths of 25-30 feet/8-9m are reported), 4 feet (125cm) beam, and depth 6-8 inches (15-20cm), with freeboard a mere 3-5 inches (8-12cm).

Closed-end woodskin. Top: bark cuts.Closed-end bark canoe, Guyana: construction details.
Closed-end woodskin. Top: bark cuts. Middle: ends folded up. Bottom: outfitted. (Farabee, W. C., 1918:75)

An alternative form, used by the inland Wapisiana Arawak people, has pointed, closed ends. The bark is harvested in the same manner, but after it is removed from the trunk, the top corners at both ends are removed, so that the bark is pointed at both ends. The bark is placed open-side down over a low fire to soften it, then it is expanded and sticks are placed between the opposite sides to keep them spread apart, but apparently not as wide as in the open-ended type. The ends are then folded and raised as above, except that the wedge-shaped sections from which the stiff outer bark is removed are longer, almost touching each other from opposite sides on the bottom of the hull. This seems to produce a hull with a rounder bottom and greater freeboard than the open-ended type.

Bark canoe on Rupununi River, Guyana
Woodskin on the Rupununi River (Roth, W., 1924:plate 179)

Woodskins generally carried one to three people and were used for fishing and general transportation. They drew little water (about 3 inches/8cm), so were useful on shallow and rocky streams, and could be more easily portaged around rapids and falls than heavier logboats. Their low freeboard, however, was a disadvantage because they could afford to take on very little water, the purpleheart bark being so dense that the boat would sink if swamped. Propulsion was with single-bladed paddles, an example of which can be seen clearly in the first photo.

I have found no recent references to woodskin use, but hope to determine whether they are still in use during a planned visit. If you have “on the ground” knowledge, please contact me.



Arnold, B. (2017) Bark-canoes of South America: from Amazonia to Tierra del Fuego (English text without illustrations; French original: Les canoës en écorce d’ Amérique du Sud: de l ’Amazonie à la Terre de Feu). Le Locle: Editions G d’Encre (Le tour du monde en 80 pirogues, fascicule 3).

Brindley, M. D. (1924) ‘THE CANOES of BRITISH GUIANA’, The Mariner’s Mirror. Routledge, 10(2), pp. 124–132. doi: 10.1080/00253359.1924.10655267.

Farabee, W. C. (1918) The Central Arawaks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Anthropological Publications. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/central-arawaks/84081CF333475CE23BA33C43187D17BC.

Roth, W. E. (1924) An introductory study of the arts, crafts, and customs of the Guiana Indians. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office. Available at: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c006937560&view=2up&seq=4.

Worcester, G. R. G. (1956) ‘Notes on the canoes of British Guiana’, Mariner’s Mirror, 42(3), pp. 249–251.