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Salish Canoes

Written by Greg Brewis, Board Member

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2010 Spring issue

Updated for blog publication in 2019 by: Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the first in a two-part series about canoes on Commencement Bay

The second post is available here.

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Native American family in their long boat loaded with supplies, 1886. The Northern Pacific railroad bridge is visible in the background.

Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library, General Photograph Collection, G5.1-009.

Canoe Heritage

Puget Sound is a picturesque gem of a waterway. The fjord-like inlets and bays were formed by the retreat of the glaciers at the close of the ice age. Hunting, fishing and travel by canoe was an important part of the life and culture of First Peoples throughout the Salish Sea, including its southern Puget Sound waters. For the first nations who lived in the region, dense forest covering the land led them to develop their own style of canoe for travel on the water. The canoes allowed them to access beaches at the base of steep cliffs so common on the Sound, where shellfish could be harvested.

Though there are canoes all around the world, early explorers of the region found the vessels built and used by the Coastal Salish quite remarkable. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes noted in his journals that the canoes “have a shape that may be considered elegant…” There were six different types of canoes used on Puget Sound: war canoe, freight canoe, trolling canoe, shovel-nose canoe, one-man canoe and children's canoe. The canoes were simple in design, yet both aesthetically pleasing and practical. Carved out of a single cedar log, they were durable and naturally resistant to rot and insect infestation. The Cedar tree was called “Great Life Giver” in the Salish language, probably because it provided many of their daily necessities. When a canoe is carved, the master carver does not consider himself to be the creator of the canoe. His job is to listen to the tree and help it become the canoe it is meant to be.

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Canoes of various sizes and design were used by Salish tribes. This medium-sized craft, ca. 1898, was intended to hold up to 5-6 people and used on large streams or protected arms of the sea. It was capable of rapid travel or for fishing with nets, spears or hooks. The canoe was constructed from a half log, with the center burned out.

Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library, General Photograph Collection, G5.1-009.

While some Coastal Salish were known to build very large canoes (up to 100 feet long), those used by tribes on Puget Sound were usually no larger than 40 feet. These were generally used for carrying cargo. Smaller craft were used for hunting mammals and birds, as they were much more maneuverable. The shovel-nosed canoe was probably the earliest style developed. It was sturdy and stable for river travel. The “dog’s head” canoe probably evolved from this early design. Canoes were usually painted red on the inside and charred black on the outside then buffed to a smooth, black finish.

Indian canoe culture was passed down through the generations by allowing younger members to help paddle the canoe and learn “on the job.” It was a common practice to sing while they paddled to establish a regular stroking rhythm. Early settlers wrote in journals that the natives could often be heard singing as they paddled their canoes on Commencement Bay.

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