As It Happens

1,000-year-old canoe recovered from N.C. lake moves Waccamaw tribe members to tears

When Michael Jacobs first laid eyes on a canoe his ancestors expertly crafted a millennium ago, he says he "couldn't do nothing but cry."

'An opportunity to actually handle and touch our history is just a blessing,' says Waccamaw Siouan Tribe chief

Nine people, six of whom are wearing scuba diving hear, hold up a long, wooden canoe near the surface of the water.
Members of the North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission, the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and local residents pull a 1,000-year-old canoe from Lake Waccamaw. (North Carolina Office of State Archaeology )

When Michael Jacobs first laid eyes on a canoe his ancestors expertly crafted a millennium ago, he says he "couldn't do nothing but cry."

Jacobs is the chief of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe in southeastern North Carolina, where a team of archaeologists and tribe members and local residents recently pulled a 1,000-year-old canoe from the water.

"For the Creator to allow us an opportunity to actually handle and touch our history is just a blessing. I mean, it's overwhelming," Chief Jacobs told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"To think that you can put your hands on something over 1,000 years old that your ancestors actually made."

A skilled and thriving pre-colonization society 

The 8.7-metre long canoe is made from pine and is fully intact and remarkably well-preserved, says Jacobs. It's what's known as a dugout, a one-piece boat made by hollowing out a tree log, usually with a controlled fire. 

"You still got the burn marks in the grains of the wood," he said.

It was found buried in Lake Waccamaw, which Jacob says was a hub for hunting, fishing and trade with other tribes.

"Through our history, you know, we've been told that we're the People of the Falling Star. We believe the Creator actually sent a star down and it fell and formed Lake Waccama, and prepared it just for us," he said. 

A crowd smiling of people stand on a beach by a pier surrounding a long box.
Waccamaw Siouan Tribe chief Michael Jacobs says removing the canoe from the lake was an emotional moment for him and other members of his tribe. (Jess Hill )

He says the discovery is just one more piece of evidence that confirms what his people already know: that his ancestors were incredibly skilled, and had a thriving and complex society long before European colonization.

"I remember going to school and in our history books.… They called our people savages and other things. And this is just proof that we were a democratic people, that we were a society that was not only surviving; we were thriving. We had our own government, our own trade, our own language, our own set-up," he said.

"For a long time we've only heard the one side of history, but this is a chance that the whole truth can come out."

3 teens made the find

A trio of teenagers — Eli Hill, Jackson Holcomb, and Creek Hyatt — first happened upon the canoe in 2021 while swimming in the lake.

"I stepped on it and I thought it was a log," Hill told NBC News affiliate WECT. "I tried to pick it up and it never came up. So, we kept digging at it and it just kept going. And then the next day, we came back and we started digging some more and it just kept going."

They stored it under the family's pier and called the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology, who touched base with the North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission to hammer out a plan to remove and preserve the find.

North Carolina state archaeologist John Mintz told WECT the canoe is a 1,000-year-old Indigenous artifact from the area, and it was important that the tribe be involved in its recovery.

"We were honoured to join our colleagues from the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology last week in helping the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe retrieve this incredible piece of their ancestry," Quinn Godwin, associate director of the North Carolina Indian American Heritage Commission, said in an emailed statement.

"This is further tangible proof that American Indians were thriving in that area of pre-contact North Carolina, and that there is a wealth of history still under our feet. "

WATCH | 1,000-year-old canoe pulled from Lake Waccamaw:

Jacobs says the tribe's elders were there when they pulled it out of the water.

It was moving, he said, to watch them "sit on the bank and cry tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of a future for our youth — how this is going to impact them and help them overcome some of the trauma of it they've experienced through being excluded at times, and even counted as not worthy."

"Our youth now can touch something that's tangible. They can handle it," he said. "Our whole tribe is excited about this."

The canoe is in the process of being chemically treated to preserve the wood. It will be on display during an open house at the Queen Anne's Revenge Conservation Laboratory in Greenville, N.C., on April 22.

"When I saw that canoe, it was like a man that only heard about his mother, and now you finally get to meet her," Jacob said. 

Interview with Michael Jacobs produced by Kevin Robertson.

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