This Centuries-Old Canoe Was a Critical Element of Wabanaki Life

wabanaki canoe brunswick maine press herald

One of the oldest-known examples of a Native American birch-bark canoe is on display at a museum in Maine, where indigenous tribes have used them for thousands of years.

The canoe put on display Thursday dates to the mid-1700s, said members of the Pejepscot Historical Society. It’s an example of the type of canoe that was critically important to the history and culture of the Wabanaki, the first people of parts of northern New England and Atlantic Canada.

This type of canoe was “extremely important for your family’s survival” for the Wabanaki people, said the Penobscot Nation’s tribal historian James E. Francis Sr. The Penobscot, one of four Wabanaki tribes still existing in Maine, still builds them today.

Maine Museum Preserves Wabanaki Birchbark Canoe

brunswick maine wabanaki birchbark canoe

One of the oldest-known Native American birch-bark canoes will go on display at a Maine historical society museum, possibly as early as this fall, after spending three decades in a barn. Carbon dating by the Pejepscot Historical Society in Brunswick shows the Wabanaki canoe was likely made sometime between 1729 and 1789. Museum records date the canoe to the mid-1700s.

The Wabanaki Confederacy is a group of Native American nations who lived primarily in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and parts of Atlantic Canada.

Larissa Vigue Picard, the historical society’s executive director, says the Wabanaki artifact is “priceless” and could be the oldest birch-bark canoe in existence. Native Americans have been making these canoes for 3,000 years. But only a few of the earliest ones still exist because birch bark is so fragile, says Laurie LaBar, chief curator of history and decorative arts at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

The Pejepscot Historical Society came in possession of the 16-foot-long canoe in 1889. Museum officials say it was donated to the organization after being passed down through generations in the family of William Barnes, a sea captain from Harpswell, who received the canoe as a gift from a tribe. It’s spent the last three decades in a barn behind the museum, exposed to extreme temperatures and humidity, but is in relatively good shape.

Built by standards of the 1700s, it was held together with wooden pegs instead of nails or other modern fasteners brought to America by Europeans, according to the historical society’s Stephanie Ruddock. The canoes were popular with early explorers because they were much lighter than dugout canoes made from tree trunks, and could be carried.

A craftsman in Wellington will restore the 18th century vessel before it goes on display, situated in a specially crafted cradle.

Read the original article in The Maine Edge.

Sacred Ojibwa Bark Scrolls Returning After 70 Years

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In the 1930s, an American anthropologist named Irving Hallowell journeyed north to Canada to live among the Ojibwa and study their culture. He left with a wealth of knowledge – and something else. He took a bundle of sacred scrolls, made out of birch bark, and central to the performance of ancient religious ceremonies of the tribe.

The scrolls were never forgotten by those whose ancestors used them. Some elders in the tribe remember the old ways of doing things. Elder Donald Bird still uses the sweat lodge behind his house. There were other rituals, like the drum and the shaking tent, used to conjure the souls of the living and the dead.

Read this archived article from CBCNews.

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Traditional knowledge and its tangible representations has been scattered, banned, appropriated, diluted, sold, and destroyed, ever since coercive colonial forces have arrived in indigenous homelands. The principles and understandings of spirit signified by these materials persist, however, in the landscapes which generated them and in the heartss of the survivors who hold them. They are the same. They are still here. They can still be known by those who seek to restore the connection and the relationship. All is not lost… all is still here to be found.

From John Trudell’s “Crazy Horse”:

The Wild Age, the Glory Days live
Crazy Horse, We hear what you say
One Earth, One Mother
One does not sell the Earth the People walk upon
We are the Land…