Pacific Postcards

​​​​​​​The Vitality of Canoes to Native People in the Pacific Northwest

Native Pacific people of the American Pacific Northwest coast were active explorers in their region that they defined as their own through strong power dynamics that involved trade, war, and hunting. Necessary to their sovereignty was canoes. Canoes were vital to the cultures of native people of the Pacific Northwest as they connected them to both natives and non-natives. A red cedar dugout canoe built by the Nootka people for their chief Maquinna that was subsequently sold to the Kwakiutl people and then a non-native trader showcases the interconnectedness of native and non-native people in the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century (Maquinna’s Canoe). Though removed from native possession, the canoe's use proves it essential to native lifestyles even as power shifted in the region. The canoe's existence is a testament to the sovereignty and power of native tribes, and its subsequent story showcases the dynamic relationships of the area.


The canoe was built by Nootka people for their chief Maquinna, who was the grandson of the well storied chief Maquinna of the same name who managed first encounters with non-natives. The boat was crafted by Nootka people likely around the mid 19th century as it was made for Maquinna’s grandson. In The Sea Is My Country, Joshua Reid concludes that the Maquinna who led the Nootka people during early encounters died in the 1820s, and assuming a generation of 20 years, Maquinna (the grandson) likely ruled around 1860. 

The physical characteristics of the canoe reflects its centrality to Nootka culture and reveals how the boat was used to establish and control native space. Firstly, the large size of the canoe at 16 meters displays how the boat was used to transport large amounts of people or goods. This proves the sophistication and sovereignty of the Nootka natives as they could have many people in a singular canoe, which is beneficial for both transport and war. Also, in the interior of the canoe there are cross beams for both structural support and sitting that further show how the canoe was used for transportation and as a vehicle of war. Beyond the importance of the size and supports, the canoe’s bow has a large protrusion which reflects the grandeur of the vessel. The upwardly curved bow implies strength and power, which was key to native people’s self-determination in a highly contested geopolitical space. Rather than constructing a simple yet effective canoe with rounded ends, the effort placed into creating an artistic and detailed design signifies how a strong appearance was important to the Nootka people. Other details on the canoe reveal how it was crafted for its specific geopolitical environment. There are two holes in the stern through which a rope could be inserted in order to tie the boat down to shore or a dock. This not only shows the complexity of the construction, but also how securing property was important during a tumultuous time in the Pacific Northwest. Though securing a boat is common practice, the tensions and violence between natives as well as between natives and non-natives that were exacerbated by the encroachment of settlers likely contributed to the Nootka carpenter’s decision to allow the boat to be tied down. The many details of craftsmanship throughout the canoe that match the needs of the Nootka people reveals the strength of the tribe and the centrality of canoes to their culture and lifestyle.

Native understanding of local geography and global tools is evident in the canoe’s construction. The canoe is made from one red cedar tree, which commonly grew in the Pacific Northwest and was used by natives to make other goods like clothing and tools. Ship builders first carved out the hull from the log, likely using metal tools gained through trade with non-natives, and then used fire and steam to bend the wood at the bow and stern. Reid mentions how metal tools were valuable to native people and frequently traded; thus, Nootka people had likely acquired these tools by the mid 19th century and were using them in canoe construction. This exchange displays the interconnectedness of the region, as Nootka people used non-native tools gained through trade to craft a boat that would then be used to trade more native and non-native goods between the cultures. Along with a construction process attuned to regional environments, the canoe’s slender shape and keelless bottom allows for the canoe to traverse shallow waters as well as thin waterways, which is perfect for the small inlets and rivers that characterize the geography of the Pacific Northwest. Native carpenters combined knowledge of local materials with foreign tools in order to craft a canoe perfectly suited for their culture, which displays how the introduction of non-native technology contributed to a continuation of existing native culture.

Within the Nootka tribe, the canoe was vital for traveling, trading, hunting, and warring in order to control their space. When non-natives first arrived to the Pacific Northwest, they were greeted by canoes full of natives, thus showcasing the centrality of these boats to native people and how they became a symbol of native culture to the non-native documenters. As non-natives further intruded into the Pacific Northwest, canoes remained essential and even increased in importance as natives now traded and waged war against non-natives. Reid argues that native sovereignty in the Pacific Northwest came through dynamic relationships of trade and violence, and as canoes were necessary for commerce and war, they were key to native self-determination.

The introduction of new venereal diseases into native spaces disrupted native societies, and the increased hardship onset by disease is reflected in the story of the canoe. As discussed in David Igler’s The Great Ocean, increased trade between native and non-native people brought disease that reduced local populations and subsequently interrupted native influence in the region. The decrease in native power may explain the transfer of the canoe from the Nootka people to the Kwakiutl leader Kla-Ko-tlas. The canoe was used to repay a debt, and though trade was frequent between native tribes, the declining populations of native people in the 19th century could have contributed to financial troubles between tribes. The trade also exemplifies the connectedness of the region and the essentiality of canoes to natives, as multiple tribes used the same canoe proving them useful regardless of its tribe of origin. In 1875 the Kwakiutl people sold the canoe to a well known British Columbia settler named Alden Huson. The canoe was then bought by James Swan who was an Indian agent in the area rushing to acquire native items. Swan had the canoe painted by Haida people, with one of the painters dying of smallpox following the painting of the boat. The painter’s death displays Igler’s argument that natives died due to increased contact with non-natives, especially in commercial spheres such as trade and labor. Though disease ravaged native communities, the canoe’s transfer between tribes displays that they remained essential elements of native culture even as power dynamics shifted.

The painting of the canoe exemplifies how settlers interrupted native cultures by altering an object essential to their lifestyle. The canoe’s painting was commissioned for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia that commemorated 100 years of American Independence. This shows the hypocritical relationship of American settlers with native people, as they clearly abused and exploited native peoples, yet also showed them off as a part of their history. Furthermore, the commissioned painting illustrates the plasticity of many native artifacts as they were painted to showcase a non-native idea of the culture, and not legitimately painted by the original creators or users. The canoe was never painted when it was on the waters of the Pacific Northwest trading and transporting native people, but when the canoe was showcased to millions of Americans in Philadelphia, they saw a different canoe that was painted to match Western perversions of native culture. Also, the canoe was cut in half in order to be transported to Philadelphia. Once a dugout canoe has been cut in half, there is no way to repair it to its original state as it all came from one tree; thus, the slicing of the canoe is symbolic of the structural damage that settlers inflicted upon native people and their culture. The canoe was an essential tool to native people, but to Western settlers, their handcrafted artifacts were simply a trophy that showcased the cultures they had interrupted

Canoes are vital elements of Nootka and Kwukiatl culture, and this artifact and its story reveal the centrality of boats to their sovereignty. Tribes of the Pacific Northwest traded, traveled, hunted, and waged war using a canoe specifically crafted for the complex geopolitical space in which they resided. Maquinna’s Canoe is a testament to the self-determination of native people in a highly contested space, yet its story also illustrates the changing dynamics of the region in the second half of the 19th century. As disease depopulated native communities and settlers increased their presence and trade in the region, power shifted away from native people. However, the canoe remained essential for daily activities, and its trade between tribes shows its vitality to natives as they continually fought to retain control over their space. While the canoe's eventual removal from native space may seem to reflect a loss of power, the artifact's mere existence proves the native people of the Pacific Northwest to be powerful and capable of controlling their own space due to their effective use of canoes.


Works Cited

Igler, David. The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. New York, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Maquinna’s Canoe. 1875. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. 

Reid, Joshua. The Sea Is My Country. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2015.


Link to Maquinna’s Canoe

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