CBC Digital Archives

The Haida canoe-building tradition

The need to navigate the waters prompted native North Americans to invent the canoe. Hundreds of years later, their creation has become a favourite Canadian pastime. Many use canoeing as a means of finding tranquility in nature; others take it up as a sport. Some even view it as an art form. The CBC Digital Archives takes a look at the storied history of gliding along the water with paddle in hand.

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When Morris White decided to resurrect the ancient art of Haida canoe building, he had to start by building models based on old photographs. The knowledge of how it was done died with his ancestors, who were killed by a smallpox epidemic at the turn of the 20th century. But they left behind a few clues in the form of a partially dug out canoe abandoned deep in the rainforest. As illustrated in this 1994 report from CBC-TV's On The Road Again, Morris is hard at work on a 16-metre vessel, and the toughest part may be finding a suitable tree to carve from.
• The Haida people of the Pacific Northwest revered the art of canoe making. They used the canoe for transportation, fishing, war and trade. They relied on the giant cedar trees of the northwest coast to built their canoes. A selected cedar had to be large enough to be carved out and hold many men. Once a tree was felled, it was shaped on the outside by adzes, stone hammers and chisels. Inside, it was burned and hollowed out. Hot water was then poured in to make the wood softer and more pliable for shaping.

• According to the Canadian Museum of Civilization website, Haida canoes "were exquisite craft hewn from the gigantic red cedar that grows on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and were highly prized by chiefs of other nations throughout the coast. The combination of beautiful lines that pleased the most demanding navigator with the fine craftsmanship and the superior quality of the cedar available on Haida Gwaii literally made Haida canoes the Cadillacs of the coast."

• Morris White was given the title Chief Edenshaw in a ceremony at Masset

Medium: Television
Program: On the Road Again
Broadcast Date: Nov. 29, 1994
Guest(s): Morris White
Host: Wayne Rostad
Duration: 5:24
This clip was edited for copyright reasons.

Last updated: November 27, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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