Byers said he works best under pressure, adding decorations
to his canoes last minute. (photo courtesy of Tom Byers)
When Tom Byers of Whitefish, Ontario, first laid eyes on a birch
bark canoe it was not what he saw that captivated him most.
It was what he heard.
"I hesitate to say the canoe spoke to me, but that's what happened,"
said Byers, who has built 74 of the vessels. "It was almost as if
there was a spirit that was communicating telepathically with me
from this birch bark canoe that I saw. It was really a powerful
experience for me."
Byers, a descendant of the Canadian aboriginal group Métis,
is part of a movement to revive a craft once key to traveling the
Great Lakes region.
The birch bark canoe was once a valuable means of transporting
Native American goods, people and ideas, said John Low, an Ohio
State University assistant professor of comparative and American
Indian studies. It was adapted and used by Europeans during the
During the past 30 years, Native Americans have worked to return
a souvenir shop item to one of individual and community pride, Low
wrote in an article published recently in the journal Material Culture.
Byers uses spruce root to lash together two sides of a birch
bark canoe. (photo courtesy of Tom Byers)
The art of constructing birch bark canoes would be lost if not
for the work of a few dedicated people, Low said. Growing up in
southwest Michigan as a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi,
Low remembers when elders in his community attempted to build a
canoe, hoping others would follow in their footsteps.
One Native American working to keep the art alive is Ron Paquin,
a self-taught artist and elder of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of
Chippewa Indians in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
Paquin's mastery of birch bark canoe making earned him a 2003
Michigan Heritage Award from the Michigan State University Museum's
Michigan Traditional Arts Program. He was also awarded an Art Serve
Michigan grant and a Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Artist
Fellowship to teach the technique to tribal adults and youth.
"I am still learning and improving and believe that if I can't
learn from my students and apprentices, then I'd better stop making
canoes," Paquin wrote in a 2010 instructional booklet titled "Ron's
The booklet and accompanying video outline the birch bark canoe-building
process step-by-step, providing pictures from a workshop with the
Little River Band of Odawa Indians in Manistee, Michigan.
First, large, thick sheets of white birch bark are unwrapped
from tree trunks in the summer.
Eric Mase peels a sheet of bark from
a birch tree. Image: (photo courtesy of Eric Mase)
Paquin uses plywood sheets, rocks and stakes to shape the bark
into the curved canoe bottom.
The bark is laced to the upper wood frame using spruce or jack
pine roots. After the roots are dug from the ground, they are boiled,
peeled and split to create strong, pliable ropes.
Rot-resistant white cedar is split to form the bottom planks
and curved ribs of the canoe, which give the vessel its shape and
Minor tears and seams between bark pieces are sealed with a
mixture of pine sap and animal fat to make the vessel waterproof.
Although Paquin follows traditional building methods, he improves
efficiency with some modern tools such as an electric drill and
commercial caulking. He also purchases some of his lumber from mills.
Other self-taught craftsmen learn birch bark canoe building
techniques from a variety of sources.
Eric Mase of Ely, Minnesota, learned the art from Edwin Tappan
Adney, an early 20th century writer and artist. Adney documented
Native American techniques for constructing more than 100 models
in his 1964 book "The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America,"
which Mase refers to as "the Bible."
ribs made of white cedar are added the full length of the
canoe to provide support and shape. (photo courtesy of Eric
"Each canoe has a different style, a different set of challenges,
and the goal is to acquire the skills to meet those new challenges
and try to see if you can make that certain canoe just the way it
appears in the book," Mase said.
Depending on the materials used, a 14-foot canoe can take between
30 and 50 hours to complete, Mase said. This time commitment requires
dedication. Each artist has his or her own motivations for pursuing
the art form in addition to income from sales.
Mase who began building go-carts and tree houses as a
child enjoys the creative process.
"It's like a musician," he said. "You're a novice and then once
you reach a certain remedial level, you have a better understanding
and you just keep refining and honing your skills and there is always
something that you learn."
"That's what makes it worthwhile, I suppose."
For Byers, the vessels are an example of what humans can accomplish
when they work with nature rather than against it. They are made
from renewable resources, do not create pollution when made or used
and are completely biodegradable, he said.
"It has more to do with being connected to the earth and nature
than it does a particular cultural tradition or religion of any
kind," Byers said. "It is about working with natural materials and
making that connection."
A number of individuals have joined Byers at his workshop to
construct their own canoes. They include historical re-enactors,
those hoping to become professional canoe builders and others who
enjoy the canoe's romanticism, Byers said.
"There are probably about as many reasons as there are people,"
Whatever their motivations, artisans across the Great Lakes
are working to sustain a work of art that is of cultural and historical
significance to many in the area.
"The tradition of birch bark canoe building and travel is clearly
not invented," Low wrote in his article. "It has lived in the hearts
and memories of native peoples throughout the Great Lakes, resting
like seeds within the community waiting to germinate and
Check out Eric Mase's work on his Facebook
page and Tom Byer's canoe collection on his website.
Ron Paquin's biography and artwork can be viewed on the Les Cheneaux
Area Artisan Cooperative website.