The great cedar trees of the Pacific Northwest provided people with housing, storage, clothing, ceremonial items, and transportation (canoes). These trees were sacred and the felling of one was a religious act. Only a specialist could carve a canoe and as he carved, apprentices would learn by working with him. Everyone involved in the construction had to observe specific rules of behaviour.

I remember watching my father cut down a cedar tree from which he was to make a large dugout canoe. He carried out this work with great respect for the tree. He would talk to it as though to a fellow human being. He would ask the tree not to hurt him as he was going to change it into a beautiful object that was to be useful to him.

Peter Webster,
Ahousat, Nuu-chah-nulth
The great cedar trees of the Pacific Northwest provided people with housing, storage, clothing, ceremonial items, and transportation (canoes). These trees were sacred and the felling of one was a religious act. Only a specialist could carve a canoe and as he carved, apprentices would learn by working with him. Everyone involved in the construction had to observe specific rules of behaviour.

I remember watching my father cut down a cedar tree from which he was to make a large dugout canoe. He carried out this work with great respect for the tree. He would talk to it as though to a fellow human being. He would ask the tree not to hurt him as he was going to change it into a beautiful object that was to be useful to him.

Peter Webster,
Ahousat, Nuu-chah-nulth

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Carving a canoe was a two-year task and proceeded as follows:

The tree would be selected. The carver would explain that it would become a canoe, who would be using it and the name it would hold. Then the tree was felled, removing all the branches, bark and the soft sapwood. Both ends of the log were cut into a V-shape to form the prow and stern. Then the log was carefully split in half. The log was then turned over and the bottom and outside of the canoe were shaped. The canoe was left to season over the winter. In the spring the carver returned to the canoe and hollowed out the interior using an adze, a woodworking tool. He then transported it to the village for steaming. The canoe was filled with water. In a nearby fire, rocks were heated and then dropped into the canoe. As the water heated and the steam rose, the wood became pliable and the canoe was stretched to increase its width. Next, the canoe was smoothed using dogfish skin or hemlock boughs. Finally, the interior was painted red and the exterior ornamentation, including the canoe’s name, was added.
Carving a canoe was a two-year task and proceeded as follows:

  1. The tree would be selected. The carver would explain that it would become a canoe, who would be using it and the name it would hold. Then the tree was felled, removing all the branches, bark and the soft sapwood.
  2. Both ends of the log were cut into a V-shape to form the prow and stern. Then the log was carefully split in half. The log was then turned over and the bottom and outside of the canoe were shaped.
  3. The canoe was left to season over the winter.
  4. In the spring the carver returned to the canoe and hollowed out the interior using an adze, a woodworking tool. He then transported it to the village for steaming. The canoe was filled with water. In a nearby fire, rocks were heated and then dropped into the canoe. As the water heated and the steam rose, the wood became pliable and the canoe was stretched to increase its width.
  5. Next, the canoe was smoothed using dogfish skin or hemlock boughs.
  6. Finally, the interior was painted red and the exterior ornamentation, including the canoe’s name, was added.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Today, the process for creating a canoe has changed only a little. The cedar trees are still treated with respect. Sometimes the wood is not seasoned. Over time, racing canoes have become narrower and narrower; however, they are still steamed. In the final stages, power tools are used to sand the canoe and then it is painted and varnished. The war canoes, seating 11 pullers are almost 13 meters (40 feet) long, but less than 50 centimeters (18 inches) wide. When fully loaded, less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of the canoe is above the waterline.
Today, the process for creating a canoe has changed only a little. The cedar trees are still treated with respect. Sometimes the wood is not seasoned. Over time, racing canoes have become narrower and narrower; however, they are still steamed. In the final stages, power tools are used to sand the canoe and then it is painted and varnished. The war canoes, seating 11 pullers are almost 13 meters (40 feet) long, but less than 50 centimeters (18 inches) wide. When fully loaded, less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of the canoe is above the waterline.

© 2009, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Mike Billy and Canoe Builders

Mike Billy and canoe builders from the Circle of Eagles Spirit Lodge.

Mike and Denise Billy,
North Vancouver Canoe Club

© Mike and Denise Billy, North Vancouver Canoe Club photo album, 2000


Steam

Canoe is being steamed by canoe builders from the Circle of Eagles Spirit Lodge.

Mike and Denise Billy,
North Vancouver Canoe Club

© Mike and Denise Billy, North Vancouver Canoe Club photo album, 2000


Shaping Canoe

Circle of Eagles Spirit Lodge - builders using power saw to shape canoe.

Mike and Denise Billy,
North Vancouver Canoe Club

© Mike and Denise Billy, North Vancouver Canoe Club photo album, 2000


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Explain the significance of the giant cedar tree to the Salish people
  • Describe who can make a Salish canoe
  • Describe the steps in making a Salish canoe, both traditionally and in modern times

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