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Native American Boatmaking Traditions

Native American Boatmaking Traditions

Redwood dugout canoes and tule reed boats demonstrate native peoples’ remarkable craftsmanship

California’s 840-mile-long coastline, extensive network of rivers, and huge freshwater lakes inspired some of the state’s Native American tribes to develop highly advanced boatmaking skills. Taking advantage of regionally available natural building materials, tribal craftspeople constructed such craft as dugout redwood canoes, reed boats, and plank canoes that allowed them to move more freely and at greater distances through their worlds, even sometimes ranging far off the coast. These boats enhanced fishing and trade opportunities, and their construction developed into important cultural traditions.

Like many indigenous lifeways, boatmaking nearly became a lost art as California’s tribes were decimated by disease and displaced from their lands following the arrival of Spanish expedition parties and American settlement. But in recent years, an active effort to preserve and promote boatmaking for future generations has gained momentum. Here’s a look at California’s indigenous boatmaking traditions, as well as ways that you can experience this unique aspect of the state’s Native American heritage.

Redwood Dugout Canoes

The basic approach to building a redwood dugout canoe might seem simple: Cut a large redwood log into two half circles, carve out the inside wood, and shape the logs into water-worthy canoes. But the demanding process takes great skill and is both craft and sacred art. Because for such North Coast peoples as the YurokHoopa, and Karuk, these canoes have a living spirit and ceremonial significance that’s central to their cultures.

As one U.S. Forest Service article said of the canoes’ significance to the Yurok, “Losing the materials and knowledge for making redwood canoes would be catastrophic for their culture.”

Canoe builders search for logs free of burn scars and with a tight grain that limits water seepage. They incrementally hollow out the logs by first burning small sections of wood, then scraping away the charred areas with an adze, an axe-like tool. Once the log is carved out to a depth of around two feet or more to create the high-sided canoes, fire is used again, this time to seal the wood with its own natural resins. The entire process can take several months, and a finished canoe might weigh 500 pounds and stretch for 20 feet.

The crafting of dugout canoes has faced a number of challenges over the years, both because so few people understand this ancient technique and due to the scarcity of suitable redwood logs. Canoe makers only use fallen logs instead of cutting trees down and strict regulations limit the use of wood found on public land.

By most accounts, only about 10 operational dugout canoes exist, making them “the rarest vessels in the world,” as one member of the Yurok tribe told the Los Angeles Times. But such master carvers as the Hupa-Yurok artists and craftsmen George Blake and George Wilson of the Yurok tribe have kept the tradition alive, and now new generations are learning this art.

A pair of the dugout canoes are used for guided Redwood Yurok Canoe Tours, during which visitors can spend either two or four hours traveling with expert guides up a stretch of the Klamath River. The tours offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to directly experience the remarkable performance of these timeless canoes as guides introduce aspects of Yurok tribal culture and describe the ecology of the river and forest from a native perspective.

Tule Reed Boats

Building small boats and canoes from reeds is an ancient practice that spans cultures, from the Middle East to the California coast, where such Northern California tribes as the Coast Miwok, Ohlone, and Pomo have used these plants for thousands of years.

Tule reeds work especially well for boat construction because the reeds are lightweight and flexible, and the stalks’ spongey interior is filled with air pockets that enhance buoyancy. But making a water-worthy craft from so many individual stalks is a demanding craft. The typical boat requires hundreds of reeds, which are harvested in a time-consuming process. And from a boatmaking perspective, not all tule is created equal. Builders need tules that are tall and green when they’re harvested. But in many areas of California, the reeds have become stunted and dried out from drought.

While tule reeds were once abundant along the shorelines of California’s lakes, estuaries, and wetlands, the plant’s habitat is greatly reduced from its original range. And many areas where the reeds still grow are on protected public lands, thus limiting their availability for boatbuilding.

After the harvest, reeds are trimmed of flowers and any snags before they’re dried in the sun for several days, or even weeks, to prepare them for assembly. Traditionally, cordage made from tules, grapevines, or cattails was used to bind the reeds into tight bundles to minimize leakage—but not so tightly that the stalks would get crushed, thus destroying the air pockets.

Builders sometimes use lengths of willow saplings to add a simple structural framework as the individual bundles are trussed together. The front ends of the bundles are typically bound into a raised configuration to create the boat’s bow. Some tribes, such as the Kumeyaay in San Diego, also historically used naturally occurring tar-like substances to keep tule boats from taking on water.

A well-made tule boat is a remarkable craft, and indigenous people used them to travel across lakes, bays, and sometimes out onto the ocean. Tribes and organizations, including the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe, an Ohlone tribe, have launched programs to teach tribal youth this boatmaking technique. Farther south, Dr. Stan Rodriguez, director and president of Kumeyaay Community College on the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation reservation east of San Diego, conducted a boatmaking workshop during the World Surf League’s Rip Curl WSL Finals at Lower Trestles in Orange County.

“This is something our people have done since time immemorial. This is part of our culture,” said Rodriguez at the event. “So when we do this today, we are reacknowledging our place by the coast, on the coast, in the ocean, and reviving a native organic science that has almost been lost.”

In most summers since 2001, the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians hosts their Tule Boat Festival, a three-day event at Clear Lake State Park open to the public, with boatmaking, races, tribal dances, and craft demonstrations. Check the tribal website for schedule updates.

Tomols and Ti’ats

On some days along the Santa Barbara waterfront, you might spot a large canoe that seems to have appeared out of the distant past. Weighing 750 pounds and measuring about 25 feet long, with five or six rowers paddling their twin-bladed paddles in unison, the canoe is a tomol, the traditional craft of the Chumash people. The Tongva, who whose ancestral lands are farther south in Los Angeles, built their own variation of plank canoes, which they called ti’ats.

Considered one of North America’s oldest forms of ocean-going craft and one of the most advanced technological achievements of indigenous people on the continent, tomols and ti’ats allowed the Chumash and Tongva to trade, fish, and hunt widely along the coast. It also enabled them to establish villages on the Channel Islands.

While other trees were sometimes used, redwood logs that had drifted down the coast were the preferred building material for the canoes. The logs were sawed into planks using wedges made from antlers or whale bone before builders pieced the planks together with yop, a blend of pine pitch and the tar-like asphaltum that occurred naturally along the shore. To further strengthen the canoes, builders drilled small holes and used string made from plant fiber or animal sinew to keep the planks connected.

The builders sanded the wood with sharkskin before painting the canoes and adding such decorative touches as abalone shell inlay. The process could take six months to complete.    

An essential part of Chumash culture, tomols were built by members of the Brotherhood of the Tomol, a tribal elite directed by a master craftsman known as the ‘altomolich.

But the 1,500-year-old tradition nearly died out and few tomols were constructed for nearly 150 years until Chumash tribespeople revived this essential part of their heritage.  At the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Indian Hall, you can see a historically significant tomol built around 1913 with the guidance of a Chumash elder, one of the few people at the time who knew the traditional building technique. Typically in September, the Chumash paddle a tomol 23 miles to Santa Cruz Island. While there’s no fixed schedule, you can check for updates at websites for Channel Islands National Park and the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Paddlers also sometimes take tomols out between Santa Barbara’s West Beach and Leadbetter Beach.