Reviving Canoe Culture

Wabanaki communities in the U.S. and Canada are renewing their traditional practices of birchbark canoe building and use.  A pivotal event occurred in 2002, when Barry Dana, then chief of the Penobscot Nation, invited master builder Steve Cayard to lead a canoe-building workshop on Indian Island, ME, the tribal headquarters.  Participants included Penobscot, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy men, and Cayard later conducted additional workshops among all three tribes. Filmmaker D’Arcy Marsh, who documented several of those events, recorded this footage at the first workshop on Indian Island.

V1:  The Significance of Birchbark Canoes
This video introduces the cultural importance, to contemporary Wabanaki peoples, of reviving the art of birchbark canoe building.


Harvesting Materials 

V2: Cutting Birch Bark
This video demonstrates the process of selecting a paper birch tree and harvesting its bark for the canoe’s skin.


V3:  Harvesting Cedar and Spruce Roots
This video shows how cedar and spruce roots are harvested and prepared for use in constructing the canoe.


Building the Canoe

V4: Making the Ribs
This video shows how the ribs of the canoe are carved with a crooked knife and then steamed and bent so that they can be used to frame the canoe.


V5: Carving Pegs
This video shows how maple is carved into pegs that will be used to assemble the canoe.


V6:  Shaping the Canoe 
In this video, water-soften birch bark is flattened, cut, wrapped up over the frame with the inner bark to the outside; the seams are sewn together to form the birch bark skin of the canoe.


V7:  Lashing the Gunwale
This video shows how the birchbark skin is sandwiched between the outwale and inwale, which are then all pegged and stitched with spruce root to form the top edge, or gunwales, of the canoe.


V8: Canoe Stems 
This video shows how the canoe maker creates a traditional Penobscot stem profile for the canoe, then pegs and stitches it with spruce root.


V9:  Installing Planks and Ribs
In this video, cedar planking is placed and ribs are inserted to form the interior of the canoe and give it strength and support.


V10: Finishing Touches
In this video, gunwale caps are pegged and lashed in place, headboards and side flaps are installed on the canoe, and the seams are sealed.


V11: Launch Ceremony
This video shows the finished canoe and the ceremony associated with its launch from Indian Island, Maine.


The videos seen in
The Legacy of Penobscot Canoes: A View from the River exhibit are the property of and used with the written permission of the Penobscot Nation, Indian Island, Maine.

They were filmed and edited by D’Arcy Marsh, D’Arcy Marsh Films, Arlington, Massachusetts.

The videos were originally produced in 2002 as part of the documentary film “Agwiden” by the Penobscot Nation and D’Arcy Marsh Films.

Funded by a grant from National Parks Service Historic Preservation Fund
With an additional grant from Lisa B. Thomas

Project Directors:  Nicholas Dow, Bonnie Newsom

Inspired by former Penobscot Nation Chief Barry Dana
Featuring Master Canoe Builder Steve Cayard

Participants in the canoe-building include:
Lindsey Almenas
Patrick Almenas
Leonard Atwin
Mike Bear
David Moses Bridges
Cody Brooks
Wayne Brooks
Steve Cayard
Barry Dana
Carol Dana
Eve Dana
Maulian Dana
Nicholas Dow
Tobias Francis
Roland Jewell
Ruth Jewell
Wenona Lola
Frank Loring
Clayton Marsh
Arnie Neptune
Stan Neptune
Jim Pardilla
Gabe Paul
Roger Paul
Butch Phillips
Neil Phillips
Scott Phillips
Wild Adam Zilenski