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Native American Boats

Here are descriptions and pictures of some of the Native American boat styles developed by different tribes over the years.

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Native American Boats

Native American Canoes

Canoes are the most common type of traditional native American boat, used throughout much of North America, Central America, the Caribbean, and many parts of South America. In fact, the word canoe comes from the Carib Indian word for a canoe, kenu. There are many different Native American canoe styles, and tribes could often easily recognize each other just by the profile of their canoes. In general, native canoes fall into the following three major categories: dugout canoes, bark canoes, and plank canoes.


Simple dugout canoe

Northwest Coast dugout canoes
Dugout canoes are made of hollowed-out wooden logs. Some Indian dugout canoes were very simple, particularly in South America, where logs were only minimally adapted from their original shape. In other tribes, dugout canoes were expertly carved into shapes that would provide better balance and speed. The most impressive dugout canoes were made by Northwest Coast tribes like the Haida and Tlingit, who used sophisticated wood carving and bending techniques to turn cedar and redwood trees into 50-foot-long war canoes capable of withstanding ocean waves. Here is a website with more photographs of Northwest Coast canoes.



Ojibwe birchbark canoe

Penobscot birch bark canoe
Bark canoes, used primarily in the Northeast Woodlands and Great Lakes areas, are a lightweight boat style consisting of birch-bark or elm-bark stretched over a wooden frame. Here is a page of images comparing different tribal styles of birchbark boats.



Chumash plank canoe
Plank canoes are an uncommon kind of American Indian canoe, used primarily on the West Coast, in which planks of cedar wood were seamed together instead of a single log being hollowed out. Except for this more complicated construction technique, the style of these boats was similar to dugouts made by neighboring tribes.

Native American Bull Boats


Picture of Mandan bullboats

Bull boat frame

Covered bull-boat

Paddling a bullboat

Bull boats (or bullboats, also known as round boats or coracles) were used by some Plains Indian tribes to transport goods by river. They were made of a bowl-shaped wooden frame covered in a buffalo skin, with the furry side facing out. (In many tribes, the bison's tail was still attached to the hide and was used as a strap to pull the boat to shore.)

Their round shape made bull boats much slower and harder to steer than canoes, but they were comparatively easy to build and could carry a lot of weight-- up to half a ton! A bullboat itself was so light that it could be carried on one person's back. They were usually made and paddled by women. Groups of Native Americans on hunting trips or foraging expeditions would carry bullboats with them to ferry meat and firewood back home, or sometimes just to ford rivers more easily.

Native American Rafts

Rafts are the simplest form of American Indian boat. Rafts have been used in nearly every human society known to history and can be as simple as a carved plank of buoyant wood. Most commonly, Native American rafts were made of sticks and branches tied together into a flat shape, and were used primarily for river crossings. One form of Native American raft that was more unique was this travel raft which was not only used to transport tribal members and their goods, but also had docking bays for the tribe's small, swift canoes.

Native American Reed Boats


Aymara reed boat

Ohlone tule boat

Pomo Indian reed boat

Reed boats are most important in South America, particularly in Bolivia and Peru, where the Aymara, Quechua, and other indigenous people built boats from bundled totora bulrushes. Some California Indian tribes built similar boats from tule and other reeds.

Arctic Native Kayaks


Qayaq

Kayaks

Aleut baidarka

Umiak

Skin boats called kayaks were used by Arctic people such as the Inuit and the Aleut. A kayak (also spelled qayaq or qayak) is made by stretching waterproofed seal or whale hide over a lightweight frame. Aleut kayaks are sometimes also known as baidarkas, a name given to them by Russian settlers. A type of large kayak paddled by multiple people is known as an umiak or umiaq. Though making boats traditionally out of sealskin is more rare in the modern era, some Arctic people still use kayaks like these for hunting and fishing today.

Native American Sailboats


Peruvian Indian sailboat

Calusa catamaran model

Maya sail boat model

Sails were rarely used in Native North American boats. In the US and Canada only a few tribes of southern Florida, such as the Calusa and the Ais, built sailboats. In Mexico and South America, however, native sailboats were more often used. Sails on American Indian boats were usually woven from reeds or from plant fibers, and had minimal rigging-- they were only used for sailing with the wind, not for tacking.

Are Native American boats like these still used today?

Sometimes! Canoeing is still popular among Native Americans in many tribes, but most of them use modern canoes, just as their non-Native neighbors do. Traditional Indian canoes of birchbark or cedar are still made by some Native craftsmen, but they are most often used for display or for cultural festivals. In Alaska, Northern Canada, and especially Greenland, some Inuit and Aleut hunters still take to the sea in skin kayaks. Aymara reed boats are mostly used for cultural events and tourism, but in a few communities smaller reed boats are also used for fishing. On the Amazon River and its tributaries, some South American Indian tribes continue to use traditional boat styles on a daily basis.


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Books About Native American Boats
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Bark Canoes: The Art and Obsession of Tappan Adney
     Coffee-table compilation of drawings and 3D models of canoe styles from many different tribes.
The Survival of the Bark Canoe
     History of the North American birchbark canoe.
Building A Birchbark Canoe: The Algonquin Wabanaki Tciman
     History of Woodland Indian canoes and instructions for making a traditional canoe and paddle by hand.
Building the Greenland Kayak
     Book about the construction of traditional Inuit kayaks, with building plans for how to make one today.
The Politics of the Canoe
     Essays by Native Canadian authors about the symbolic meaning of canoes to indigenous communities.

Links About Indian Boats

Northwest Coast Canoes
     Photos and information about traditional Pacific Northwest dugout canoes.
The Bark Canoe
     Canadian museum exhibit comparing different kinds of Algonquian and Athabaskan canoes.
Tom Byers, Metis Canoe Maker
     Here is one Native Canadian man who makes beautiful birchbark canoes and wooden paddles for sale.



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