Mapping the Wabanaki Canoe Routes of Yesteryear

wabanaki-mapping

Since people have lived in New Brunswick, there have been highways, though not all were created equal.

n 2015, the provincial government closed the neglected Jemseg Bridge, leaving a large section of the former Trans-Canada Highway still standing — abandoned and inaccessible.  Part of a so-called “modern highway,” the route has decayed past the point of use just a few decades after it was built.  But underneath it runs another highway, thousands of years old, and still in working condition.

The Jemseg River, along with hundreds of other rivers, creeks, and streams make up the highways used for centuries by First Nations communities for trade and travel using birch-bark canoes. Some of these routes are well-recognized today, their winding routes shared though the oral history of several First Nation communities. Others were thoroughly recorded by famed New Brunswick cartographer and historian William Francis Ganong.

Some are less known, and some may be lost to history, but researchers are working to map those possible routes using a combination of computer software and linguistics study.

Read the full story at CBC. ca.

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.

Indigenous Peoples Day and the Cedar-Strip Canoe

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In 2015, I won an Adirondack cedar strip canoe at the Putney Grammar School Raffle, at the Strolling of the Heifers. The canoe was lovingly donated to the raffle by master craftsman and woodworker Parker Sterner, of Boulder Junction, Wisc., who has two grandsons at the Grammar School — Henry and Charlie. It is just amazing — he made it. It is not only a vessel; it is a work of art.

It is especially meaningful to me because I also went to the Grammar School, from 1988 to 1990. I loved the Grammar School. It was a place that nurtured my book-smart, outdoorsy, artsy spirit. It also set me on a path to become a scholar.

But, the cedar canoe connects us to another source of hope and meaning. Let me explain. I grew up in Brattleboro, but like many Brattleboro people, I always have been a traveler. This is one of the things that led me to become an anthropologist. Also, like many Brattleboro people, I always yearned to understand the history of Native American people of the area, on whose land we are living. So, I set out to do intense, focused study of this through doctoral research at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec.

Read the full article by Jessica Dolan in the Brattleboro Reformer, photos by Jess also.

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.

Passamaquoddy Ceremony Launches Birchbark Canoe

dwayne tomah passamaquoddy canoe damariscotta
Passamaquoddy elder Dwayne Tomah gives a blessing in both Passamaquoddy and English before the boat is launched into the Damariscotta River for its first ride. (Christine LaPado-Breglia photo)

By 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 27, a small crowd had gathered near the flagpole at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle. The occasion was the celebration of the recent completion of a Wabanaki birchbark canoe in the school’s Cable-Burns Applied Technology and Engineering Center, a project that was led by Wellington master canoe-builder Steve Cayard.

On this day, Cayard and a number of others – including the LA students involved in helping build the 14-foot canoe – accompanied the beautiful brown boat as it was carried along in a procession down Academy Hill Road that ended at the Damariscotta town landing for a launching ceremony marking the canoe’s maiden voyage.

Beginning in late March, Cayard, boat-building interns Dan Asher and Tobias Francis, and students at LA worked together for four weeks to create the traditional birchbark canoe – shaping the bark, bending the canoe’s ribs, splitting and lashing spruce roots, and so on. The result is a meticulously crafted, artfully detailed, lightweight canoe that is authentic in every way. Originally, Passamaquoddy master canoe-builder David Moses Bridges – a longtime friend and colleague of Cayard’s – was scheduled to work on the building of the boat, but he passed away from cancer in January at age 54. Francis is his son.

Read the story by 

Maliseet Launching Ceremony for Handmade Wabanaki Canoe

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Intern Tobias Francis installs a rib on the Wabanaki birch-bark canoe to be launched at the Damariscotta town landing on Thursday, April 27.

During the past month, many hands have shaped bark, bent ribs, split and lashed spruce roots, laid in planks, wedged ribs into place, and sealed seams. Master canoe-builder Steve Cayard, interns Dan Asher and Tobias Francis, and students from Lincoln Academy are putting the finishing touches on a traditional 14-foot Wabanaki birch-bark canoe at Lincoln Academy’s Applied Technology and Engineering Center, where the construction is taking place. This one-of-a-kind project is the result of a partnership between Damariscotta River Association and Lincoln Academy, with support provided by LincolnHealth as well as members of the community.

Now ready for its maiden paddle, this special canoe will receive a special send-off. The public is invited to join representatives from Lincoln Academy, DRA, and the Maliseet First Nation for a procession and the ceremonial launching of this remarkable craft on Thursday, April 27. The processional group will gather at the Lincoln Academy flagpole at 1 p.m. that day and will carry the canoe to the Damariscotta town landing, where the ceremony will begin at around 1:30 p.m. Maliseet representative Wayne Brooks will lead the ceremony, giving a blessing before the canoe is launched for the first time. In the event of rain, the event will be moved to Friday, April 28, at the same time.

Lincoln Academy is located at 81 Academy Hill Road, Newcastle.

Original article in the Lincoln County News.

Support Penobscot Paddlers: USCA Nationals at Northfield MA

 

USCA NE Nationals Logo

The New England Canoe and Kayak Racing Association (NECKRA) is hosting the USCA National Championships on the Kwanitekw at the Northfield Mountain Recreational and Environmental Center in Northfield, MA. A team from Penobscot country will be participating. Come for three days of marathon racing (August 12-14, 2016) with championship competition for canoe, kayak, surfski and SUP. For the younger paddlers, sprint races will be held on Thursday August 11.

Read the local article in the Greenfield Recorder.

Red Pine II

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A (long-promised) follow-up to the inaugural post “Red Pine I” of March 2015, all of 5 years ago…

Pasaakw, the red pine. At first glance, this is a very straightforward tree, a simple tree; it rises uniformly from the ground, self-pruned of its dead branches, clean-trunked, to a compact and symmetrical crown.  Often in groves of its fellows, it stands very tall and perfectly straight, the ground beneath carpeted in needles and clear of understory. But “what lies beneath” can tell a much more interesting and meaningful story: in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan, the Western Abenaki language, it signifies the “swollen tree” or, more closely, “tree full of…” A closer look at this fullness – this internalized richness of self –  may help us to relate to this particular one a little closer.

Red pine (referred to idiomatically as yellow pine at the time) was reported as being predominant and of exceptionally superior growth, at the meadows in Sokwakik where two colonial forts were built: Fort Dummer in the southeast corner of what became Brattleboro, and at Fort Number 2 on the Great Meadows of Putney. These fortifications on the west side of the Kwenitekw were built of the selfsame arrow-straight pine that grew on the the sandy plains where they were situated: Fort Dummer in 1724, and two successive forts on the Great Meadow, in 1740 and 1755.

t dummer 1724 brattleboro equivalent lands

Benjamin Homer Hall, in his classic 1858 work History of Eastern Vermont: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Close of the Eighteenth Century, states of Fort Dummer that “The fort was built of yellow pine timber, which then grew in great abundance on the meadow lands.” Upriver on Putney’s Great Meadow, Hall describes how, in 1755, area settlers built a fort that “…was in shape oblong, about one hundred twenty by eighty feet, and was built with yellow pine timber about six inches thick, and laid up about ten feet high.”

Fort Dummer 1724 governor's academy

A relic section of timber from Fort Dummer, in the collections at The Governor [Dummer]’s Academy, Byfield, MA. The appearance of the straight, wide grain in the photograph does evoke the growth habit of  red pine timber.

It was no mere coincidence that these spectacular pine groves were found in these specific places. Today, in Vermont, we tend to think of red pine as naturally occurring on dry mountaintops and ridges, and, in a more deliberate manner, found in large, regimented plantations that date from popular soil conservation efforts in the last century. But the species prevalence and distribution of today’s landscapes can be deceiving; it wasn’t always like this. Before Vermont’s vast forests were nearly completely clearcut by the rapacious demands of “civilization”, the red pine flourished along the rivers. There are reasons for this.

Abenaki people, in common with many other indigenous groups, traditionally deploy fire as a landscape management tool, primarily in the river bottomlands. Maintaining open edge habitat encourages the diverse plant and animal communities that flourish there. Controlled burning is also used to clear the fertile alluvial floodplains for agriculture, in the form of both plantings of adapted crops such as corn, beans, squash, and tobacco, as well as permaculture of naturally occurring species including groundnut, Jerusalem artichoke, and berries. These fine sandy, alluvial depositions provide a receptive, readily-worked seedbed, and a more temperate, extended, low-elevation growing season. Controlled burns help to keep the land accessible and sunny, returning minerals to the soil, and provided a level, readily-utilized settlement space adjacent to n’sibo, the home river. European settlers made ample note of this practice when they came on the scene – a quote from a narrative by the Hon. Charles K. Field:

The intervales and meadows at Fort Dummer, upon West River, and at the Asylum farm, were found entirely bare of forest trees. Such was the fact with all the meadows on the Connecticut River at the time of the first settlement of New England. The Indians burned them over every year, and used them for planting grounds.

Here’s an interesting thing about red pine: it actually likes fire. It has several adaptations that dispose it toward success with regard to surface burning. Its seeds require a mineral soil surface to germinate, that is, one in which the duff has been removed/burnt and the bare surface exposed. This also removes competing shade-cover, even if not very tall, another prerequisite for successful red pine sprouting and growth. Trees that reach seed-bearing (thus regenerative) age tend to survive fires that might damage a younger stand. The higher crowns and self-limbing trunks also lend themselves to higher fire survival rates.  Finally, the thick, platy bark of red pine is one of the most fire-resistant in the northern temperate forest; it ranks third, after pitch pine and chestnut oak. The right fire at the right time is exactly what a red pine appreciates.

In general, red pine prefers the sandy, well-drained soils of outwash plains, along with a good dose of moisture. These locations also tend to be open and sunny. The raised alluvial river meadows of the mid-Kwenitekw easily meet those characteristics – at least historically; nowadays, many of them are flooded by hydroelectric impoundments, or developed, or farmed intensively. It is not a surprise, then, that the wolhanak, the intervales, sustained impressive stands of red pine, one hundred feet tall and three feet thick. No wonder the merchants of New Haven, CT sent a party all the way up to Great Meadow in 1732 to harvest that legendary grove.

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Kchi Mskodak (the Great Meadow) in Putney, today.

So, what about the name pasaakw? What causes this tree to be so “swollen”… what is it “full of”, after all? The simple and obvious answer is: pitch. The binomial, Western botanical name is Pinus resinosa, in acknowledgement of that very fact. The resin can be gathered on the bark surface, where there has been an injury or a parasitic insect has drilled a hole, as is similar with many other conifers. Why would one gather resin? It is used as a waterproof sealant, for bark canoes and containers (try removing it from tools or your hands with water – it requires an alcohol solvent) or as an adhesive/glue, for adhering materials together, such as a stone point on a wooden arrow shaft. Red pine will produce copious amounts of pitch to seal and heal a wound, whether from fire or penetration.

There is good evidence that red pine groves were intentionally, culturally-modified by Algonquian peoples on a regular basis, to provide a ready source of pitch for sealing bark canoes. A stand along a regularly-travelled watercourse may have been maintained and adapted through modification (wounding the trunks to produce more pitch), in order to keep a dependable supply of this raw material handy for bark canoe construction and maintenance. It may be no coincidence that the broad meadow on the east side of the Kwenitekw (in today’s town of Westmoreland, NH) – and between both Ft. Dummer and Fort No. 2 – is called Canoe Meadow. That’s another story for another night.