Ojibwe Birch Bark Canoes

Posted on January 20, 2012



The bark canoe of the Chippewa {Ojibwe} is perhaps, the most beautiful and light model of all the water crafts that were invented. They are generally made complete with the rind of one birch tree, and so ingeniously shaped and sewed together, with roots of the tamarack… that they are water-tight, and ride upon the water, as light as a cork. They gracefully lean and dodge about, under the skillful balance of an Indian… but like everything wild, are timid and treacherous under the guidance of a white man: and, if he be not an equalibrist, he is sure to get two or three times soused, in his first endeavors at familiar acquaintance with them.*

  *GEORGE CATLIN, Letters and Notes of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indian (1841)

Ferdy Goode paddling an Ojibwe-style birch bark canoe photo by Walt Jones

The experienced canoe-builder goes about his task with sure deftness, often with no shelter. His final success is assured because he has the “feel” of materials; he knows the natural stress and shrinkage of green materials; he understands the allowances he must take to fashion a craft with the graceful, sweeping, curving lines that create the traditional symmetry of the Indian canoe. The secrets can only be learned with patience.

The finished birch bark canoe remains a work of natural beauty since none of its surfaces are preserved in any way. The honey-colored bark and the irregular gummed seams and edges are pleasing to the eye, while the woodsy odor of the drying materials are tantalizing to the olfactory senses.

The canoe still provides a severe test of the paddlers skill and sense of balance. Because of its construction without a keel, its handling is regarded as a special art but, light and responsive, its mastery provides much pleasure and satisfaction. With so much to offer, its admirers believe it should not become a mere collector’s item or museum piece but should continue in use, a link with the past for the future.

In this land of deep forest, numerous rivers, streams and lakes, the canoe was an exceedingly important element in the life and culture of the Ojibwe people. Here where the waterways were the main arteries of travel, the birch bark canoe was the most important means of travel and transportation.

For these Indians of the north whose economic life was based on hunting and fishing, the canoe was invaluable. Among the Ojibwe whose economic cycle demanded movement, the canoe took them to their hunting grounds in winter, to the maple sugar bush in spring, back to the summer village in season and to the wild rice fields in early autumn. It was used in fishing and trapping, and was a necessity in gathering the wild-rice growing in shallow lakes and streams.

The Ojibwe canoe is generally recognized as being one of the finest in design and workmanship. It is a graceful craft with a high, curved prow and sleek lines.

Ojibwe Canoe Words