The Make and Use of Redwood Canoes by the Yurok Tribe

Fallen redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) logs were hollowed with fire to form canoes by Pacific coast Indians of northwestern California (e.g. Yurok) that were sold to other tribes (Powers 1877, Chesnut 1902). Redwood trunks for canoes were gathered by the Yurok from the bar across the mouth of the Lower Klamath, or all along the coast where redwoods grow (Powers 1877). Redwood (and it’s relatives such as bald cypress) is known for having insect-repellant wood. It is also quite soft and easy to carve.

They were burned by the Yurok to suitable lengths, (one made in 1968 was 18 ft long x 3.5 ft wide x 1.5 ft deep) and the ends kept blunt rather than pointed (Powers 1877). To burn them into shape, pitch was spread on the area of wood to be burned, and when it was burned sufficiently deep, a piece of raw bark was clapped upon the burning area to extinguish it (Powers 1877). By this method, and with scraping and polishing with stones, the sides and ends were reduced to be very thin and smooth, with appreciable symmetry and elegance (Powers 1877). At the stern, a small, neat bracket was burned and polished out to serve as a seat (Powers 1877). Before metal tools, this work was completed by two Indians in five or six months (Powers 1877).

Yurok man paddling traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.firstpeople.us/canoe/yurok-in-the-shadow.html

Yurok man paddling traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.firstpeople.us/canoe/yurok-in-the-shadow.html

Such a canoe could carry five tons (Powers 1877). They were used for shooting dangerous rapids and surf, in sea during stormy weather, and regularly traveling the 44 mile round-trip from the Yurok village to Crescent City to bring back merchandise (Powers 1877). For collecting shellfish, they were used to go to small offshore islands a mile distant, upon which they jumped from their canoes despite dangerous rocks and surf (Powers 1877).

 

 

To keep the canoes from cracking in the sun, when not in use, they were turned upside down on the sandy beach and their bottoms were cleared of adhering barnacles, seaweed, and other matter by singing with burning reeds or bundles of sticks to loosen the pitch and scrape off the matter, i.e., they were breamed (Powers 1877). Or they were hauled into damp and shady coves, or thickly covered with leaves and brushwood (Powers 1877). If they become cracked, holes were bored through the wood on both sides next to the crack with a deer antler, and withes were passed through these holes, being tightened by twisting them with sticks (like a tourniquet), closing the cracks better than caulking (Powers 1877).

They are still made by the Yurok in our age, mainly for ceremonial use and display, but sometimes for regular use. One is on display at the Thomas H. Kuchel visitor center at Redwood National Park. See this Redwood National Park handout for a little more info: http://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/upload/yurok%20canoe.pdf

Modern Yurok making traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/Battling-Upstream-3288175.php#photo-2436580

Modern Yurok making traditional redwood canoe. Photo credit: http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/Battling-Upstream-3288175.php#photo-2436580

REFERENCES

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Powers, S. 1877. Tribes of California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

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