Exchange Value of a Canoe
"A canoe was a set unit of value. Our main money
was a fathom of the hicore
or dentalium shells. And it was either, the big ones, and then
the little , That's a set money
was a fathom of, you know, strung, big dentalium shells,
or strung little dentalium shells. And then there were
a very few other things that also had a set value, and
it was associated with those shells, but a canoe is
one, a slave is another" (Tony Johnson interview: 2002).
"One for the sea, one for the river..."
Excerpt from Alexander Henry's journal on November
"Their canoes are many, and of various dimensions;
one for the sea, one for the river, and the smaller
kind for fishing. We observed some men playing a certain
game, which is very common among them. While at this
camp we saw a large sea canoe coming from the opposite
side of the Columbia, which proved to be that of Comcomly,
the chief of the Chinooks, who was himself seated in
the middle, alongside one of his favorite women, La
Blanche. This canoe was paddled by six men, one at each
end, and the other four two abreast; they kept regular
time in paddling. Their manner of loading the stern
foremost; this is with a view to preserve the sharp
stem of the canoe, and at the same time to break the
surf, and prevent the canoe from filling with water"
(Henry in Coues 1965:Vol II:750).
Chinookan canoe bailers
"The finest we ever saw..."
"Their canoes are the finest we ever saw; they
are made of the large white Cedar hewn out with great
labor. They are constructed with a high bow and stern,
which are separate from the main vessel, and so neatly
put on, that the joints will not admit water. They are
very light, and the edges are ornamented with Sea shells"
(Johnson and Winter: 1932 Reprinted from 1846).
University of Oregon Special Collections & University
Archives; Bowman Collection
Portion of same image above.
Courtesy of University of Oregon Special Collections
& University Archives; Bowman Collection
Dunn describes Chinook canoes and skill in 1840's.
“Corps coveted tribal canoes, stole
Joe Scovell , chairman of the Clatsop-Nehalem Tribe provides
additional historical and contemporary information on the history
of the canoe and the carving of the Dragonfly in this article,
“Corps coveted tribal canoes, stole one” from the
Statesman Journal, November 7, 2005.
|Fort Clatsop > Culture > Canoe People
Carving a Traditional
Canoe", drawing by James G. Swan (Swan:
Courtesy The University of Montana, Mansfield Library,
K. Ross Toole Archives.
"I'm carving this canoe because
I feel real strongly that we've got to remember how
to do these things. Our old people really had something
of value and that we need to maintain it. In my opinion
the very best people I've met in my life, are our oldest,
old time Indians. What they were doing is of value,
and I want to do it.
Johnson carving canoe
in the shops at Ft. Clatsop.
K. Lugthart photo.
"So I spent more than ten years now,
sitting around with those people trying to visit with
them and learn what's the right thing to do, and how
to do it. I want to have us remember how it really is.
Rather than say, 'My grandpa could make a canoe, or
my great grandpa or something, well, I want my boy to
come up and say, well my dad can make a canoe and so
"We're building these canoes for our culture,
basically, to just have a means of moving on the water
like our ancestors. Now, we have a desire to use them.
We're planning on a first salmon ceremony that would
run over a series of years for us, and, for that ceremony,
I really hope that we can go out and get our fish, our
"At this time, we really don't have the right
to just fish. To get the ceremonial fish actually laying
in our net, and pulling our net into this canoe, or
another is very, very important to me" (Tony Johnson
Ocean-Going and Sweetwater Canoes
"This is an ocean going canoe, it's
on the small end of that, but this is kind of what you'd
call a seal hunting sized canoe. So, you know, just
a couple, two, three people can run it, and all the
design attributes, the way that they're put together
is to run in the ocean. They're refined, they've been
refined for thousands, tens of thousands, whatever,
of years to, to the point that they're at today.
"This is a Chinook canoe, that's how it was
referred to. This style of canoe was probably from Tillamook
country, south of here, up to the west coast of Vancouver
Island. This is a saltwater canoe, not ever used in
sweetwater. You don't run in sweetwater with it, it's
a saltwater canoe.
"A sweetwater canoe is a shovel-nosed canoe,
and it's just more of a round bottom and a long, real
slow sloping bow and stern, and it's just a different
rig. They don't have these sharp, cutwaters. This kind
of sharp, cutwater is really great for a saltwater canoe,
but if you tried to turn sideways in a current in this
kind of canoe, soon as, if you try to go cross current,
soon as that water's just going to hit these cutwaters
and just turn you, turn you, turn you. You know, it
wants to keep the nose or stern, which ever you're backing
in, wherever you're backing into the current it wants
to shove it down stream. Those shovel-nosed canoes are
real fair and so the water just moves underneath them"
(Tony Johnson interview:2002).
A sweetwater canoe
– this one
is a river canoe used by the Cowlitz tribe,
as drawn by James G. Swan. (Swan: 1857)
"It's a very unique paddle, right,
because it's a crescent bottom, and that really is a
cultural trait of Chinook. It's one thing that Chinooks
do, that I don't think any other people around us do.
I've seen notes from other tribes, other Indians, where
they made these paddles, but they only use them for
specific purposes, so their ocean going paddle is always,
a, like a, kind of diamond shape, more like a typical
"But this is very much a Chinook style, and
the point of this is moving through strong tides, strong
currents. It's a means of holding your canoe in one
place, by locking into those roots and rocks. We use
this kind of paddle for basically everything,
You know, they just have a real fine slow line" (Tony
Traditional crescent shaped Chinook paddle, drawn
by James Swan (Swan: 1857).
Courtesy The University of Montana, Mansfield Library,
K. Ross Toole Archives.
One Tree (Material
"It used to be that a quarter mile from here,
a half mile from right here, anyplace that you'd stand
in Lower Chinook country, anywhere where our five bands
were living, I'd say within a mile, you would have found
a log that in some respect was suitable for canoes.
Then, of course, they were very picky, because they
had better choices.
"Three hundred years ago I could have walked
a quarter mile from right here and found better material
than it took me two, three years to find for this log,
and, or for this canoe. And that's just exceedingly
frustrating, I don't know if you can see all the bug
work and everything that's in the canoe. That's a product
of basically our environment being so affected.
"There are good trees in the neighborhood, that
is, I mean in Chinook country. There are two or three
stands of good old growth timber. But they're very limited,
and by their nature now that they're still here, they're
very also protected. So I doubt that anytime soon the
Chinook tribe will be taking a log out of our own country
for our own uses.
"This log came from the Cascade Mountains at
about four thousand feet, and because of that, and growing,
you know, growing at that high of an altitude and getting
to the size that it is, and you know, probably, more
than half the year in the snow. This log is eleven hundred
and eighty years old, and so it's a fantastic piece
of wood for that reason and it has a lot of power to
it, I mean, it's a strong piece of wood, but also by
growing that long and in that rough environment and
"And then actually I was looking at a lot of
standing trees to take down for the canoe, and the very
straightest, minimum, minimally tapering log that I
could find was laying down, had all its bark on it,
looked pretty good. And this log had probably been there
ten years or less on the ground, but by just growing
that long and what have you, it lost some of its resistance
to bugs, and so there's quite a lot of bug work in this,
and that's real unusual.
"A log of this size, to get to this size down
here, it's maybe only three hundred and fifty years,
two hundred and fifty, three hundred fifty, five hundred,
seven hundred, you know, not anywhere near the amount
of time it took to get to this size up there. And a
log that's in that range, five hundred years, seven
hundred years, a cedar log, there's no chance of a bug
"Cedar's just really, you know, it's nature
is to resist the bugs, and so you might have some issues
like heart checks, and different things that happen
in it, but the bug work is real unusual to find to this
extent in a log. You might find in a log around here
that's laid on the ground for hundred years, but you
can find a log that's laid on the ground for a hundred
years here that doesn't have that, too, so.
"In the old days you had a very fine piece of
wood that was picked over with a lot of time and thought
spent in it. And generally that canoe would be a whole
beautiful piece of wood as it came out of the log. Instead,
I've spent a huge amount of time just patching this
canoe, before in fact it's even done. And this log also
ended up growing at a strange angle, and had kind of
a little monster in it or something, because when we
opened the canoe up, seeing this canoe open, one side
just opened beautifully and the other side didn't want
to move very well, and I don't know if it was growing
at a funny angle or what. But when it actually decided
to move, it just popped open and left a big crack on
one side, very big crack" (Tony Johnson interview:2002).
Steaming a Canoe
"Well, there's kind of a trick to steaming
a canoe. Basically, four fingers or so of water is put
in the bottom of this canoe and then hot rocks are heated
outside and those rocks are added to the inside of the
canoe, boiling the water, softening all the wood. As
the sides pull out, it lifts the ends up, and that's
how you get to this kind of final shape" (Tony Johnson
| Living Canoe
"For this canoe, our insistence was if we're
going to carve a canoe, well we have to carve a traditional
canoe that's a living canoe. Because all we've ever
learned about how you carve to make canoes is that,
you know, you are transforming something aren't you.
Asking this log to be a canoe, well if we are asking
that, it, basically, we'd have to be saying we're making
a museum piece out of you, you know, that just doesn't
Tony Johnson’s completed canoe
in the water near mouth of Columbia during
First Salmon Ceremony in May, 2002.
|"This is the, cedar logs want to
become, some of these logs want to become canoes, but
I don't think they want to become museum pieces, so
this will be a living canoe for us. We have to follow
all the old rules as to how we take care of it, so that
it'll take good care of us out on the water" (Tony Johnson interview:2002).
| “The Dragonfly”
Making a Dragonfly
Photos courtesy of Dick Basch