Canoes of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest

The First Nations people of the Northwest Coast are renowned for their elegantly engineered canoes. Ranging in length from three to twenty metres, canoes were essential for travel, transport, hunting, and trade. Different coastal communities developed distinctive styles to suit their particular needs. Each canoe is made from a single cedar log, carved and steamed into shape.

Haida canoes were exquisite craft hewn from the gigantic red cedar that grows on Haida Gwaii and were highly prized by chiefs of other nations throughout the coast. The combination of beautiful lines that pleased the most demanding navigator with the fine craftsmanship and the superior quality of the cedar available on Haida Gwaii literally made Haida canoes the Cadillacs of the coast.

Canoemakers in each village worked on their new craft throughout the autumn at sites where the very best red cedars stood. After an appropriate snowfall that facilitated sledding, the roughed-out canoes were moved from the woods to the nearest beach and towed to the home village, where they were finished over the winter. In the spring, lightly manned flotillas of new canoes left Skidegate Inlet, Masset and Rose Spit on the north coast, braving the seasonal storms to head for the mainland. If these vessels could withstand a crossing of the treacherous Hecate Strait, they could withstand any weather the coast could provide. At the Nass River, the canoes were traded to coastal tribes assembled to take advantage of the spring eulachon fishery. Old canoes were taken in trade by the Haida for their return journey home.

Text above adapted from 

Gelwa (Canoe)

Carved and painted by David Shaw and assistants, ca 1934
Over-painted by Bill Reid, 1967
Kitamaat, BC
Red Cedar, paint
Gift of Major G.G.E. Raley, 1948

In the 1930s, when this canoe was made, Native and non-Native fishers alike continued to engineer seaworthy vessels, adapting their skills to building wooden-hulled seine boats or carving and steaming cedar dugout canoes for new purposes. 

This canoe was made by Haisla members of the Kitamaat Athletic Club. It was sent as a wedding gift to their patron, the son of local missionary Rev. G.H. Raley. 

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2012
Source: Display, Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia

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