quick flicks of a short carved knife, Marvin DeFoe tapers an end
of a white cedar rib, one of 40 that will soon strengthen the
birch bark canoe (wiigwassi-jiimaan) that lies in a bed of sand
at his feet.
The cedar (gizhik)
strips first soak, ironically enough, in a modern fiberglass canoe
filled with water. After they absorb water, the strips are steamed
so they can be shaped as ribs to fit the inside of the canoe.
A propane burner
boils water in a converted red gasoline can. A flexible hose feeds
the steam to a long wooden box that holds the cedar strips. DeFoe
puts on thick cotton gloves, opens the door to a hiss of steam and
removes a strip.
By the time the
Red Cliff tribal member has stepped back to the emerging canoe,
he has bent it into the rib shape.
DeFoe and Sam Alloway,
a Forest County Potawatomi Community member, place each rib in the
bottom of the canoe and ties it in place. Each rib is custom fitted
and may require further work with a knife or a hot water bath to
The cedar ribs make
the craft as strong as the tradition of canoe building followed
by Native people for centuries.
However, it's a
tradition that today needs shoring up.
A skilled canoe
builder, DeFoe spent several weeks at the Potawatomi Community's
Cultural Center and Museum, near Crandon, showing others, especially
the youth, how to construct birch bark canoes. Native people construct
canoes from late June through July, DeFoe explains, because it's
easier to take the birch bark off the trees.
Alloway plans to teach his children the art of canoe building once
he's fully learned the skills, skills "that don't come out
of a book," he said. This is the first canoe he's worked on.
He built a model birch bark canoe at a class taught last year by
Harvesting the materials
All materials for the canoe come
from the forest, DeFoe said. "Our Anishinabe Wal-Mart,"
he said, a trace of a smile follows.
Years ago the forest
held many large birch trees, first choice for canoe building.
one canoe," DeFoe quotes the elders who found suitable candidates
with little trouble. Now, DeFoe has to search far for a suitable
candidate because timber harvesting has taken so many of the larger
birch trees. He may use two or three trees to harvest enough large
sections of birch bark for a canoe.
It can take nearly
as long to gather the forest materials as it does to construct a
canoe, he explained. In addition to the birch bark, spruce roots
(wadabiig) must be gathered. The roots are boiled and then split.
He uses a running or cross-stitch, depending on how the grain runs
on a canoe section.
Cedar must also
be harvested. Slender cedar strips line the bottom of the canoe
and also run along the top of the canoe. Shorter ones, or stems,
brace each end.
Building the canoe
After the materials are gathered,
DeFoe and Alloway sew three pieces of large birch bark together.
Although other people lend a hand, it is these two that do the bulk
of the work.
The birch bark,
an eighth-inch thick or the thickness of a leather belt, gets placed
on a bed of sand. Rocks the size of squash are placed on top to
flatten the bottom.
The sides are brought
up and held in place by two-inch diameter stakes pounded along the
canoe frame. The exterior (white) face of the birch bark faces inward
and the builders coax it around a canoe-shaped form.
Gunwales are formed
and the bark locked, using lacing, between an inside and outside
Water is a constant
companion during construction, hot water poured slowly over the
birch bark makes it pliable so it doesn't crack as they shape it
around the frame; the cedar ribs and cedar strips surrender their
stiffness after a steam bath.
In a small nod to
modern technology, propane gas heats the water and a portable scroll
saw rough forms the cedar wood. But no power tool touches the canoe.
a birch bark canoe requires great patience, DeFoe said. Nothing
goes fast, seams are painstakingly stitched; a razor sharp knife
slices repeatedly through the birch bark to form the ends of the
16-foot canoe that will weigh about 50 pounds when done.
goes under the ribs. DeFoe's ruler is simple and close, the spread
of four fingers marks the distance between the ribs.
include a liberal application of the sealant, a mixture of spruce
pitch, deer (or bear) tallow, and hardwood charcoal ground to a
powder. Too little charcoal and the pitch will run in hot weather;
two little pitch and it will become brittle and crack in cold water.
are pretty good chemists," he said. DeFoe chuckles as he talks
about his first canoe, its bottom too round which caused it to tip
easily. Some 30 canoes later, he's now skilled in the craft. But
not a master, he modestly says, because the title belongs to elders
who craft the canoes.
Among them is 93-year-old
George McGeshick, Sr., whose grandson, Robert McGeshick, stops by
to nod his approval of the canoe's progress in the tent behind the
Cultural Center. Canoes crafted by the elder McGeshick are in the
Smithsonian and museums elsewhere, his grandson said.
The canoe will be
used by the Potawatomi Community for traditional rice gathering
and for educational purposes at the center.
Canoe building is
"just part of the total knowledge held by the Anishinabe,"
DeFoe said. "It's always interested me how we survived as Anishinabe
"It's how we
came to be.
"It's who we