Coastal Salish Canoes


The coastal indigenous people of the Northwest Coast of North America, from Oregon to Southeast Alaska, were the makers of canoes from the western red cedar tree. These people made several varieties of the best canoes ever fashioned. Early explores and missionaries were impressed by the construction, sophistication, size, speed and grace of such fragile looking canoes. With the thick forest, dense brush of the Northwest coast and the amount of goods to be carried to summer fishing sites, much of the traveling was done by water.†


Old growth western red cedar trees ranging from 300 to 800 years old were used and would determine the size of a canoe. In selecting a tree the importance of guarding spirit, purification rituals, suitable size, straight grain, no limbs on one side (to have fewer knots) and the ease of getting to the beach would determine if the tree could be used. Trees along rivers, lakes or drift logs washed upon the beach were the ideal for getting the tree to the village of the carver. A tree that was further inland would after falling be ruffed out, left in the woods to cure for a year and then with the help of family and friends moved to the beach. Old growth western red cedar has a tendency to be soft or rotten at the core, sounding out the tree to assure the soundness of the core is important. The rot at the trees core should be avoided, a sound core gives strength of the bow and stern.

Specialist in canoe building made the larger canoes. Anyone could build the smaller dugouts and river canoes. Before becoming a canoe carver he would dream, talk and have a guarding spirit song for the tree. A canoe carver when searching for a tree might listen for the Ďchop-chopí sound of a supernatural assistant working on his canoe. Among the British Columbia Salish people, the woodpecker, especially the northern pileated redhead, was the most common dream spirit of canoe builders. The ancient ways of felling a tree were by chiseling or controlled burning.


Today the chain saw is used in felling the tree, for shaping and hollowing out the canoe. Those who fell the trees possessed the power in praying to and telling the tree which way to fall so they would not break. A prayer and cedar bough cleansing of the tree before it is moved and before the carving begins are preformed. The launching, dedication and naming ceremonies are a time of recognizing the carvers to the assembled group.†


There are a number of different styles of canoes each being made for a certain use. The most common canoes in the Coast Salish area are, Northern (Haida), Nootkan/West Coast, Coast Salish, Salish shovel-nosed river and Coast Salish racing. The size range from large war type (Northern/Haida) canoe to smaller canoes handled by one person or for river use. The war canoes would be over 60 feet long, over 8 feet wide and 7 feet high at the bow.


Jewitt describes in 1799 of seeing off the west coast of Vancouver Island a raiding party that consisted of 40 vessels carrying 20 warriors each. A freight canoe of good size had a carrying capacity of 5 tons. The general family/transportation canoes of the coast ranged from 18 feet to 35 feet with being able to hold up to fifteen people and about 3 tons. The depth of a canoe is at least 3 feet. The thickness of the canoe side in general is 2 fingers widths and the bottom 3 fingers widths. To insure that the thickness if consistent in the canoe hull small holes are drilled in the roughly hollowed hull, measured pegs made of yellow cedar are inserted in the holes. When the inside of the hull is carved away and the yellow cedar pegs are reach the carver knows the correct thickness for the sides of the canoe have been reached.


When families would move to their summer fishing villages they would tie two canoes together and place planks across the canoes, being able to haul more goods. The planks across the canoes were also used for ceremonies when arriving at other tribal villages. The ceremony is for telling the identity of the arriving tribe, is done with songs, dances, traditional greetings and asking for permission to come into anotherís tribal territory before landing. In the past these ceremonies, depending on the importance of the arrival, could take hours.


Once the shape is formed and adzed, then canoe is ready to be steamed. Steaming is the final shaping of the canoe and is very curial. If the steaming is done wrong the canoe may crack or split in half. Starting early in the morning, rocks are heated to red hot in a fire pit not far from the outside of the canoe hull. Water is poured into the bottom of the canoe the hot rocks are dropped into the water. Using paddles or sticks the boiling water is washed up the sides of the canoe to help speed the softening. Mats (or a plastic sheet) are then placed over the canoe helping the steam soften the sides (almost lost the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribal Salish style canoe when steaming, softened so fast came close to splitting). The out side bottom may be scorched with lighted torches to add heat and harden the wood. When the sides start to spread thwarts are used to form the shape and are lashed into place. Once the canoe cools the thwarts will hold the shape and may be used for seats. Before epoxy sealer heated dogfish oil would be rubbed into the canoe inside and out. The life span of a canoe if used hard maybe only ten years, if used only on occasion and well cared for, thirty or more years.


When traveling in a canoe sails are often used. There are differing opinions regarding the use of sails before contact. Boas stated that the wood slat sail was the type Native people of the Northwest Coast used before contact. Thin split western red cedar wood slat boards were sewn together (12 square feet for use on a 35 foot traveling canoe). There were sails made of woven cattail, rush, cedar bark, as well as the cedar boards. With contact the canvas sails were a highly prized trade item. Not having a keel or rudder, the canoe could not quarter or sail into the wind, but a stiff following breeze propelled canoes with welcome speed.


All canoes would have bailers. They may be made out of western red cedar bark, a handle across the top with the bark attacked at each end of the handle. A bailer may also be carved in the shape of a sheep horn spoon or the top of a bent wood box.


Canoes were important for the burial of our ancestors. The canoe may have been elevated on poles, tied in trees, or may have been placed on the beach. After the person or persons (relations may be included at a later time) were placed in the canoe a smaller canoe may have been placed over the top as a lid or it may have been covered with mats. A burial may be on a sand bar with the body placed under an over turned canoe either wrapped in mats or placed within a bent wood box.


The most common used canoes by the SíKlallam were the Coast Salish and the Nootkan/West Coast styles.


Reference: Coast Salish Canoes, Leslie Lincoln Cedar,
Hilary Stewart