The history of traditional watercraft is rich and diverse. Long before the Europeans’ arrival to the Western Hemisphere, the canoe and the kayak were some of Canada’s most important vessels. Pre-contact, almost all groups of First Nations peoples across northern North America used the canoe or the kayak in daily life because these vessels were essential for their livelihood, travel and trade.
The history of traditional watercraft is rich and diverse. Long before the Europeans’ arrival to the Western Hemisphere, the canoe and the kayak were some of Canada’s most important vessels. Pre-contact, almost all groups of First Nations peoples across northern North America used the canoe or the kayak in daily life because these vessels were essential for their livelihood, travel and trade.

© 2002, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Logo

The Canadian Canoe Museum's logo reflects the Indigenous heritage of the canoe. Canoe images have been recorded in dozens of pictographs (rock paintings) around Ontario, dating back over hundreds of years. The logo depicts an image from Pictured Lake, south of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The Canadian Canoe Museum

© 2000, The Canadian Canoe Museum.


The use of the canoe and the kayak dictates their design. In other words, they are vessels in which "form follows function". This characteristic is represented in each of the unique types of craft that were used across Canada: the closed deck kayaks used in frigid waters of the North, the huge ocean-going dugouts used on the West Coast, and the bark canoes used to navigate the great lakes and rivers of the country. Local materials and local conditions determined the form, while the skill and cultural traditions of the builders contributed to the uniqueness of each craft. Historically, canoes and kayaks were built for hunting, fishing, trade, transportation, warfare, gifts and ceremonies.
The use of the canoe and the kayak dictates their design. In other words, they are vessels in which "form follows function". This characteristic is represented in each of the unique types of craft that were used across Canada: the closed deck kayaks used in frigid waters of the North, the huge ocean-going dugouts used on the West Coast, and the bark canoes used to navigate the great lakes and rivers of the country. Local materials and local conditions determined the form, while the skill and cultural traditions of the builders contributed to the uniqueness of each craft. Historically, canoes and kayaks were built for hunting, fishing, trade, transportation, warfare, gifts and ceremonies.

© 2002, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

These uses often required the paddlers of canoes and kayaks to possess skills of strength and speed. Interestingly, these are the same skills that are sought after in canoe racing. It is, thus, only natural that the traditional forms of Indigenous watercrafts were useful in the daily lives of the people, as well as in racing competitions. The archival photographs found on these pages are evidence of the racing traditions visible across northern North America.
These uses often required the paddlers of canoes and kayaks to possess skills of strength and speed. Interestingly, these are the same skills that are sought after in canoe racing. It is, thus, only natural that the traditional forms of Indigenous watercrafts were useful in the daily lives of the people, as well as in racing competitions. The archival photographs found on these pages are evidence of the racing traditions visible across northern North America.

© 2002, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Because northern North America is a unique land of lakes, rivers and coasts, the canoe, in its variety of forms, is a resourceful response to the environment. A canoe’s form is indicative of the region from which it originated. The region of origin dictates the type of water in which the canoe is meant to be paddled, as well as the type of materials that are available to construct the vessel. The resulting variety of canoe forms are a response to the environment, the landscape and the needs of the people.
Because northern North America is a unique land of lakes, rivers and coasts, the canoe, in its variety of forms, is a resourceful response to the environment. A canoe’s form is indicative of the region from which it originated. The region of origin dictates the type of water in which the canoe is meant to be paddled, as well as the type of materials that are available to construct the vessel. The resulting variety of canoe forms are a response to the environment, the landscape and the needs of the people.

© 2002, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Describe the origins and history of canoe and kayak racing in northern North America
  • Explain the relationship between canoe and kayak form and canoe and kayak function
  • Describe the importance of the canoe and kayak to traditional Aboriginal life

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