Saturday, May 10, 2008

American Canoe Culture, East vs. West

In the chapter "Vessels of Life: Northwest Coast Dugouts" of The Canoe: A Living Tradition, Steven C. Brown noted that "the existence of sea-going canoes enabled the Aboriginal Northwest Coast peoples to become the masters of their worlds, living in a seasonal round of camp and village locations that were advantageous for the harvesting of varied and plentiful food resources."

This represented a fundamental difference from the canoe culture of the American northeast, beyond the very distinct craft that predominated in those two areas. For where the Northwest cultures (ranging from present-day Washington state to Alaska) relied upon their large dugouts for seasonal migration, the Northeast cultures did not rely on their smaller dugouts and bark canoes for the same purpose. Both cultures, of course, used their canoes as hunting tools (seeking different game), but the Indians of the northeast did not engage in coastwise migrations. Northeast seasonal migrations were, I believe, primarily movements from the coast to inland and back. Canoes would have been superfluous during the winter months spent inland, when all surface water is frozen.

The Indians of the Northwest, in addition, seem to have maintained a richer material culture, and their large dugouts were well-suited to carrying everything owned by a village. (Indeed, it is said that there were enough canoes in the region to carry every single person living there, plus virtually all of their portable goods.) Northeast Indians had less to carry on their migrations and could do it on their backs.

I suppose this just demonstrates what is a well-known distinction; that the Northwest Indians were a maritime culture, as distinct from the Northweast Indians, who were a woodland culture.

By the way, The Canoe: A Living Tradition is a very pretty book. Its content is uneven -- the level of detail and method of treatment varies from chapter to chapter, each of which was written by a different author -- but there's much interesting information here for a canoe history novice like myself, and lots of nice photos.

The photo above shows a 63' Haida canoe from the Queen Charlotte Islands off British Columbia and was built in 1878. It is from the website of the American Museum of Natural History and is described in detail here.

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