Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



pictograph divider


Ancient Tradition Lives on in Forest County


by Dean S. Acheson Rhinelander Daily News Staff


With 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 reshape it.

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.

The 39-year-old 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 DeFoe.

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 tree, 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 gunwale.

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.

Construction of 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.

Cedar sheathing goes under the ribs. DeFoe's ruler is simple and close, the spread of four fingers marks the distance between the ribs.

Finishing touches 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.

"Anishinabe 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 people.

"It's how we came to be.

"It's who we are."

Crandon, WI Map

Maps by Travel

pictograph divider

Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 of Vicki Barry and Paul Barry.

Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!