Carved from a single cedar log in 1986, Bill Reid’s 50’ Lootaas was responsible for the reawakening of the Pacific Northwest’s First Nation canoe culture.
Lootaas’s most important trip was its 1987 19-day voyage to Haida Gwaii. Lootaas stopped at many coastal First Nations communities where memory of such beautiful craft had been forgotten. Each member of Lootaas’ original crew was required to carve their own paddle, as was the old way. Each was a personal expression of what that 1986 voyage meant to them.
Lootaas sparked the revival of Pacific Northwest First Nation canoe-making. This revival has been a welcome and significant element of the reawakening of the powerful cultures that once flourished along this massive coast.
Every coastal First Nation designed and built dugout canoes based on available resources and were suited to their purposes and environment. The northern nations had the best trees and the need for ocean going craft seaworthy enough for whale hunting. The Songhees traded for those northern canoes for their ownocean travel and carved small shovel-nosed canoe, called a “tetela”, for daily chores and commutes around the harbour.
Ocean-going canoes are masterfully designed in shapes and sizes to serve a number of functions. They are carved from solid logs, usually of red cedar. Typically the boats are widened beyond the original log diameter by spreading the steam-softened sides. While carving the log the canoe-maker must be aware of the major changes of form this spreading imposes, envisioning the straight and level gunwales bending smoothly out and downward. In the case of large ocean-going hunting, war and voyaging canoes, and those used in competition, the ends rise to form a more graceful sheer, transforming a rigidly narrow, hollowed log into an elegant, efficient watercraft.
Spreading the Hull
To spread the log without splitting it, the walls of the canoe’s hull are carved remarkably thin. When the hull is completed, it is filled with water to a depth of six inches or so, then heated to boiling with red-hot rocks. The steam is confined within the hull by covering it with mats. The hot rocks are replaced as needed to keep the water at a boil. The softened sides, heated through by the steam inside and by fires outside, begin to move outward, aided by water and rock weights pulling the gunwales down. Spreading sticks are tapped into place between the gunwales, and as the softening continues, they are moved towards the ends in increasing lengths in the centre to retain the outward flare. When the desired width and form have been reached, the canoe is allowed to cool, the water removed, and thwarts, bow and stern blocks, and gunwale caps are fitted and fastened in place. These ocean-going canoes were then painted with designs associated with the names of the canoes or with the crests of the owners.
The oceangoing canoes had straight keels, low pointed bows with a mouth-like slot, and a stern that gradually tapered upward. The Nuu-chah-nulth style of traditional fishing canoe dominated the southern coast canoe market from the 1860s until the early 1900s, when many First Nations people began to make the transition from traditional dugout canoes to Columbia River fishing boats made of planks and rigged with sails.
Emily Carr, who grew up in the early days of Victoria described a regatta in which the First Nation canoe races were a highlight. The canoes, of ten paddlers and a steersman acting as coxswain, “flash[ed] through their races like running fire.” The Kloochman (“wife” in Chinook Jargon) was “an even grander race” than the men’s, with the women giving “every scrap of themselves to the canoe”, working in complete unity.
In the late 19th century, canoe racing featured hybrid English/Nuu-chah-nulth racing canoes. For many years, First Nations canoe racing was an important event on the Gorge waterway, the inland extension of Victoria’s main harbour. During the gold rush of 1858, American visitors celebrating Independence Day initiated canoe regattas. (The local British, fearing an American takeover of the colony, forbade these activities and encouraged their replacement by celebrations focusing on Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24th instead.) Over time First Nations canoe racing became part of the larger Gorge regatta. Hundreds of people brought boats up the Gorge for festivities in the area below the reversing falls at the Tillicum Road Bridge. Here, the Navy strung colourful banners across the water. Local dignitaries handed out prizes for boat races held among the First Nations and Chinese communities, as well as among navy personnel and local clubs. The featured event was the race of the 40-foot (12.19m) ‘war canoes’.
In the 1860s and 1870s, separate races were held for ‘Southern Indians’ (Salish-speaking) and ‘Northern Indians’ (e.g. Haida, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk and Kwakwaka’wakw). In the 1890s, it was mostly southern peoples who were involved in the races. The canoe entries for 1895 included the local Esquimalt, Songhees and Saanich Nations, various Cowichan and Chemainus area groups from Vancouver Island, and the Snohomish and Lummi from Washington State.
The canoe races started near the Gorge waterfalls and moved down the Gorge, around Halkett Island in upper Victoria harbour, and back again. (In 1876, a Songhees canoe won the 3.2 km race with a time of 15 minutes.) By the early 1900s, some canoe races started in downtown Victoria. The racing ‘war canoes’ had given way to specially designed long, narrow craft that combined characteristics of English racing canoes and Nuu-chah-nulth canoes.
The Gorge regatta was scaled down after the start of World War II and was only held on special occasions after 1948. But, beginning in the 1920s, local First Nations organized most of their own races at other locations. Today, canoe racing continues to be a thriving sport among the Lukwungen and other Coast Salish First Nations.
In 1901 Captain John Voss Tilikum sailed out of Oak Bay. The vessel was based on a dugout canoe built in the early 19th century by the Nootkan (Nuu-chah-nulth) from a large red cedar log. Tilikum traversed both oceans before she sailed into harbour on the Thames in London, England in September, 1904. In 1937 Betty Lowman Carey became the first woman to singlehandedly row the Inside Passage of British Columbia in a dugout canoe, the Bijaboji. While the lost Amelia Earhart garnered international coverage during the same weeks, the “co-ed canoeist” generated significant media attention all along the British Columbia coast. In 1978 Geordie Tocher and two companions sailed a 3½ ton, 40 foot (12 metre) dugout canoe, the Orenda II, made of Douglas Fir, and based on Haida designs (but with sails), from Vancouver to Hawaii to add credibility to stories that the Haida had travelled to Hawaii in ancient times. Altogether they travelled some 4,500 miles (7,242 km) after two months at sea.
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