Northwest Coast Canoes

Members of the Tlingit Nation of Southeast Alaska board a dugout canoe, known as Raven Canoe. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin, 2008.

Pacific Northwest canoes are both a sophisticated art form and a symbol of cultural identity, reflecting local needs, sea conditions, and skills. Although there are a variety of canoe types depending on tribal formats and traditions, canoes are one of the three major forms of monumental art among Northwest Coast First Nations, along with plank houses and totem poles. However, the canoe is the single most important physical manifestation of Northwest Coast culture. They go back to the Great Flood myth, and exist at the nexus between technology and living beings. They are spiritual objects which garner great respect. The hulls are constructed of once-living trees that survived centuries and sustained the lives of innumerable birds, insects, mammals and other plants. Prior to European contact, and with painstaking precision, these trees were felled (or even occasionally harvested from the forest floor or beaches) and transformed into vessels, without drawings, calculations, or engineering as we know them today. Journeymen carvers and now-forgotten artists formed the logs into mighty sea craft.

Blessed at each step of their transformation and hardened by the forces of fire and water, these canoes come to represent whole clans and communities. The canoe’s technology is older than time, but still perfectly fitting for people seeking to explore and know the ocean. The Northwest Coast canoe provides the maximum amount of boat for the minimum amount of material, and represents unity and teamwork, as well as strength and health. Canoes became a valuable trade item between nations in the past, this is especially true for the Haida, Tlingit and Nuu-Chah-Nulth, and they are still capable of bringing wealth and prestige to a community and to a people.


For a variety of reasons, Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) is the material of choice for the construction of these canoes. Red Cedar became co-dominant in lowland coastal forests about 6,000 years ago. These trees grow to be up to 8-10 feet in diameter at the base, and rise up to 200-300 feet high. These red cedar trees provide a rich source of raw material for the coastal First Nations, as their outer bark can be used for mats and sheathing, their inner bark used for fibre for baskets and fabric; their fibrous roots can be knotted and woven into cordage; their wood is ideal for splitting into planks and stakes; they are easily carved into small household items; and, in the round, they make strong, durable house posts and beams. These items can all be taken from standing trees or felled ones. The cedar wood itself has a number of natural characteristics which make it indispensible to the coastal inhabitants. It is strong, but lightweight, and has straight grain with few knots. For this reason, it is easy to split and work and, due to its abundant volatile oils (potent natural pesticides), it is buoyant and resistant to rot. However, due to logging during the 20th Century, the habitat that fostered the growth of these huge trees is now greatly diminished, and untouched stands now only exist on the coast of British Columbia and in the lower Alaska Panhandle

Making 4 canoes from 1 cedar tree. Olympic Loop, Queets River, Washington. Photographer and year unknown.

Tree Selection and Carving Process

Northwest Coast canoes are usually made by a specialist canoe carver, with one or more assistants. Traditionalally, this master canoe maker required a spiritual helper, as did those undertaking any major task in the boat’s construction. These men were subject to a number of constraints such as not combing their hair during construction to avoid splitting at the ends of the canoe, and ideally remaining celibate so the timber would not rot. In total, it would take three men about two months to complete a 25-foot (7.6m) canoe.

The tree selected for a canoe is chosen not only for its size, but also for its straight, even growth and its proximity to water. Canoes are fashioned from a single cedar log and, depending on its taper and length, it is split into either two or three huge wooden blocks. As a tree’s wood is always lighter on its south side, it must be split in an east-west direction in order to avoid a list in the finished boat. The log for a large canoe requires a butt end of at least 6-feet (1.8m).

Once a tree is felled, its entire top section with any lateral branches is cut off, and the bark and sapwood from the remaining log is removed. From this, the canoe blanks are cut into a V-shape at each end, and then both ends are adzed to a point, and the wood from the north side of the log is roughly split out in between using wedges and a hand maul.

This creates an approximate canoe shape, whose width (beam) would ideally be twice its depth.The cut log for the canoe is then turned over and adzed to shape into a rough finish on the outside in the forest. Keeping the butt end for the bow, the log is shaped to ensure that it is symmetrical end-to-end. At this point the partially completed canoe can be left in the forest for the winter to allow the wood to cure and mature.

The following spring, the unfinished canoe blank is to be turned over and the inside roughly hollowed out. First, several deep holes need to be chiseled out of the interior and the wood between to be split out with wedges and a maul. The interior of the hull can then be contoured and thinned using a large adze.

To ensure an even thickness of the canoe hull, two methods would also be used.  In the case of a master canoe carver, he could usually judge the thickness of the hull by eye using the thickness of one, two, or three fingers as a guide.  In the other case, the canoe maker would drill holes through the roughly hollowed hull and insert Yellow Cedar pegs of a measured length.  He would then carve away the inner surface of the hull at the holes until he reached the measured pegs, then cut vertical grooves between them.  Finally, the wood between these grooves would be split and carved out using a small adze and curved knife, leaving a slender sided hull of even thickness.  Once the canoe was lightened in this way, during the winter months when snow was on the ground, the hull would be skidded out of the forest to the nearest river or beach, and then be towed back to the village beach or carving shed for finishing.

Crest figures of bears attached to a Tlingit Chief's canoe for ceremonial purposes. Wrangell, Alaska

Depending on the type of canoe and the artist carving it, seperate bow and stern pieces are carved and added with pegs and mortise and tenon joinery to increase the canoe’s height and length. Again, depending on the type of canoe and who it is for, the crest of the owner is often displayed on the bow and stern. In the case of ocean-going cedar canoes, the vessel is partially filled with water, which is boiled with hot rocks, covered with mats, and steamed so its sides could be stretched outward to increase the canoe’s beam. The sides are stretched in stages by inserting increasingly longer thwarts, and finally seat boards into the hull. This steaming also causes the mid-ships of the canoe to sink and the prow and stern to rise, giving the canoe graceful, sleek lines. In stretching the mid-ships in this way, however, the underside rises slightly making the bottom of the vessel slightly concave in shape. Traditionalally, freshwater canoes were much cruder vessels with a spoon-shaped bow and stern, so steaming and stretching was not a part of their construction process.

In some cases, the exterior of the bottom of the canoe may need to be scorched with small fires, removing any stray slivers and hardening the wood. If the canoe is to be carved or painted, it needs to be sanded on the outside. In the past, this was done with dogfish/shark skin or some other abrasive material such as hemlock boughs, and then rubbed again with fish oil for preservation both inside and out. The final step in finishing the canoe is to paint the crest designs on the exterior (and rarely the interior) of the hull. Traditional west coast whaling canoes almost always had two parallel rows of opercula running along the sides just below the gunwales, and the Chinook also often decorated their canoes by insetting wolf and sea otter teeth into the sides.

Today, of course, power tools can be used for all of this work, except the adzing and curved knife work. Suffice it so say, however, that all of this detail work requires very sophisticated fitting and joinery, and the finishing especially requires incredible skill with both the adze and the curved knife. Upon completion, all canoes are given a naming ceremony and a traditional blessing to welcome them into the community. Each canoe has its own personality and decoration, so is named for the owner’s crest animals, birds, fish or the canoe’s handling characteristics.

Canoe paddles at the Haida Heritage Centre, Skidegate, B.C. Photo © G.F. MacDonald, 2008.

Paddles and Other Canoe Accessories

Paddle shapes vary with tradition, and are typically carved and painted as a set for each boat by the canoe maker and his assistants. If they are made of Western Red Cedar, they are usually painted black and red, or black and ochre if they are of Yellow Cedar. Yew wood, which is much harder than cedar, is also used. Paddle shapes also vary with use. For example, whalers’ paddles tapered to a fine point so they could enter the water more quietly than a broader paddle, while the steering paddle used in the stern of the canoe is stouter and broader. According to Bill Holm, seven different types of paddles evolved on the Pacific Northwest Coast. These seven types were two variants of a Salish paddle, a west coast whaling paddle, one type of paddle each for the Kwakiutl, Haida, and Tlingit, and a steering paddle which was also used commonly in the larger canoes of the Haida and Tlingit peoples. Poles are also utilized in propelling and steering fresh water canoes.

Other accessories to the canoe are again based on function and sea conditions. In the past canoe bailers were usually carved or constructed by the individual paddlers who used them. They were either made out of a strip of cedar bark pleated at both ends, folded back, and attached to a wooden handle, or a scoop-like object carved from a block of red cedar. In open water, a heavy, quartering sea pounding the hull presents the most danger to a canoe and its ocupants as it could crack the hull or even split the vessel in two. In order to maintain the buoyancy of a whaling canoe that was shipping water in heavy seas, the crew would tie inflated sealskin floats along the gunwales and bail continuously.

Stones also played a role in canoes, providing the weight for anchors and canoe breakers, as well as ballast when freight canoes were travelling empty. As inter- and intra-tribal raids and wars were a fairly common occurrence amongst the people on the Pacific Northwest Coast, and there was an active slave tradition and trade, defense against war canoes in battle was a necessary consideration. To this end, large stone rings up to 2 feet in diameter and weighing up to 50 pounds tied with a long cedar bark rope were stored in and tethered to each war canoe in order for paddlers to throw at attacking canoes and split them apart, while still retrieving the weapon. These stones were called canoe breakers.

Canoe Types:

Northwest Coast canoes differ in size depending on their functionality. Pre-19th Century styles are known primarily from canoe models in museums, early paintings and drawings, and the observations of 18th Century travelers. Also, with increased trading, travel, and potlatches, localized canoe designs merged and hybridized after contact with Europeans. Small craft for sealing, seaweed and shellfish gathering operated close to shore in shallow water and could be handled by a single person or two. Fishing and local travel were also undertaken either solo, in pairs, or in fours and in shallow water. Freight canoes varied in length, while raiding, war, and chiefs’ canoes tended to be the largest boats. These could rock lengthwise and rise and fall over swell conditions, with their high prows and sterns to ward off the following waves and their mass and thin lines to cut through them.

Man in a dugout freshwater canoe, Muckleshoot, Washington. Photo by Arthur Ballard, 1919. Courtesy of National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Freshwater Canoes:

In general, there were five different types of canoes carved on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Four of these were ocean-going boats, while the fifth was for freshwater use in rivers and streams. The latter had a simple dugout form made from a softer deciduous wood, and was used widely by most of the people on the coast. It was burned or adzed out to have similar shallow bow and stern profiles, and was usually quite a simple dugout form with little or no attention paid to the quality of workmanship or decoration. This dugout type was called a River Canoe. It was usually made out of a soft deciduous tree trunk such as cottonwood, and was both poled and towed by ropes from the river banks as much as it was paddled.

Ocean-Going Canoes: 

The four ocean-going types of canoe were all developed by different groups on the coast, depending on the use for which they were constructed, local ocean conditions, and specific cultural traditions. The ocean-going canoes differ from the freshwater ones in their materials, larger proportions, wide beams, sweeping bows and sterns, and adaptation to swells and waves. Each of these four prototypical ocean canoe types has a completely different profile, although all are a variant of the standard Western Red Cedar dugout vessel.

Model of a head canoe. Photo by B. Herem, year unknown.
Head Canoe:

The first type of ocean-going boat was called a Head Canoe, which was developed by the North Coast nations. It was an early style of the Northern Canoe, which was in common use at the time of European contact during the 18th and early 19th Centuries. It had a large, heavy prow and stern designed to look like a long, broad blade cutting through the water. The prow was also prominently notched at the forward end to hold poles and spears. While this large prow and stern were ideal for portraying paintings of the crests of tribal chiefs and clans, they were a great detriment to maneuverability of the canoe once the use of sails became common.
This occurred by the mid 19th Century, by which time most large vessels had been fitted with two or three masts and sails made of cedar mats or later, canvas, were hoisted. Another reason for the demise of the Head Canoe was the suppression of warfare along the Coast imposed by the British Navy in concert with the Hudson’s Bay Company. War was not good for trade or profits, so gunboats regularly shelled villages into submission. The very shape of the Head Canoe’s broad prow was to allow the maximum display of a war chief’s crests and protective devices, to project a fierce and intimidating image.  With the suppression of inter- and intra-tribal wars along the coast, these crest displays were no longer necessary, especially for trade canoes and freighters. So by the mid-19th century the Head Canoe type gradually disappeared, to be replaced by the lighter, sleeker Northern Canoe.

Model of a head canoe. Photo by Bill Holm, year unknown.
Northern Canoe (Haida, Tshimshian, and Tlingit Canoes):

The second type of prototypical ocean-going canoe is the Northern Canoe, which is commonly used by the Kwakwaka'wakw people living on Northern Vancouver Island, the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit in Alaska. It is sometimes known by the name Haida canoe, because the master carvers on Haida Gwaii had the best red cedar logs and made the most sophisticated and speedy boats of this type.  Designed for long journeys over open stretches of ocean, the northern nations needed a large craft with a high prow and vertical cutwater to throw off the waves. It also has flaring sides and a rounded bottom for buoyancy and speed.  

Often, to give extra height to the sides and prevent waves from breaking over them, wash strakes in the form of long planks can be added to the gunwales from stem to stern with pegs and withes. Although being prototypical, this canoe has a variety of design forms, ranging from small, single- and two-person craft up to 70-foot ships for raids, wars, and freight. These Northern Canoes usually have a beam of between 5- and 9-feet. Characteristically, all of these canoes curve and swell near the bow, and the prow gracefully curves up from the water and can be adorned with elaborate crest carvings, while the stern is long and overhanging.  The sides of the Northern Canoes often also have elaborate paintings along their lengths. Due to its mass, trim lines, and length, the Northern Canoe has the ability to rock along its length over long, rolling swells, as well as to cut through smaller waves. Although developed and used on the North Central and Northern west coast, the Tsimshian, and Haida people especially, often conducted raids and wars on the Kwakwaka'wakw and Salish in the south. Therefore the Northern Canoe was known along the length and breadth of the Pacific Northwest Coast, and was often used as a valuable trade item by these tribes.

Bill Reid's Dogfish Canoe off the beach at Skidegate. Photo by G.F. MacDonald, 2008.
Coast Salish Canoe:

The third prototypical canoe type was developed by the Salish peoples, and is a light, sleek craft with a long, tapered bow and overhanging stern. This canoe type is called the Coast Salish Canoe. It was primarily constructed for use in the sheltered waters of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Georgia, and the hundreds of inlets and bays in Salish territory where there are no large swells coming in off the Pacific Ocean and where wind-driven waves and chop are small. It has a more gently sloping bow than the Northern Canoe, and a rounded bottom.  The gunwales of a Coast Salish Canoe terminate in a concave flare with the wood being only one finger-width at the edge, two finger-widths on the sides, and three finger-widths on the bottom.  This Coast Salish Canoe, however, did not perform as well as others for raids, fishing and freight, so was gradually replaced in the early 1870’s by the West Coast Canoe through trade with the Nuu-Chah-Nulth. Eventually, the West Coast Caone type even came to be produced by the Salish people themselves. Prior to this, however, Salish canoes were usually painted black with elaborate ochre or red figures near the ends of the boat. The Salish also made a makeshift or emergency canoe from cedar bark, which was light and easy to portage, so was used to cross rivers or lakes.

Coast Salish Canoe at Nanimo, B.C., ca. 1890s. Photographer unknown.
West Coast Canoe (Nuu-Chah-Nulth, including Makah, Chinook, and Quileute Canoes):

The fourth type of prototypical canoe was developed by the Nuu-Chah-Nulth people who live on the west coast of Vancouver Island on lands facing the open Pacific Ocean and the often-fierce westerly winds. Being the only whaling people on the coast, their canoes often travelled far out to sea. Their canoe is called the West Coast Canoe, of which there are a number of variants, but all have the same profile. As this canoe started to be traded to the Salish people, it ultimately came to be known as the Chinook canoe, which was a name that indicated that it was excellent for use as a freighter.

Due to its exposure to high waves and winds sweeping in off the Pacific, this canoe is configured and its profile is very different than all of the other canoes on the coast. It has a long, tall prow shaped to resemble the head of a wolf, with a notched space between the ears to hold stowed masts and harpoons. This elegant bowsprit was carved separately and attached to the hull. This canoe is both stable and roomy, with a flat bottom and flat gunwales. The stern is blunt and heavy with a vertical transom and built-in backrest for the steersman.

This vertical stern was developed to allow the canoes to be paddled bow-first up onto a beach, and then to be backed out with the heavy stern helping to push through the breaking waves. The lines of this canoe are long and trim, having the look of a speedy boat, and most are painted black. Its suitability as a freighter arose out of its flatter bottom, which made beaching and loading this type of canoe much easier. The sides of this canoe also flare at an angle of about 30 degrees along much of its length, increasing the carrying capacity and making the ship very stable in high seas.

Most West Coast war and freight canoes were 40-60 feet in length, occasionally rising up to 70 feet maximum. The beam of the canoe is always less than or equal to about 1/7th of the boat’s length. The Nuu-Chah-Nulth also built a smaller version of this canoe for whaling off the west coast. It was much shorter, at about 35 feet in length, and had sealskin bladders along its gunwales to prevent floundering in the long Pacific swells. The beam of these whaling canoes was about 5 feet, and they held an 8-man crew with all of their whaling gear. This whaling canoe’s range was increased with the use of sails, which were usually trapezoidal sprit sails attached to a mast with no boom. This type of sail could be struck, rolled up quickly, and stored against the mast with root cordage.

West Coast style canoes backed onto a beach, Nuu-chah-nulth territory. Photographer and year unknown.
Two young girls with a canoe at Gitwangak (Kitwanga). Photo by C.M. Barbeau, ca. 1955.


Small canoes were usually paddled in the kneeling position, causing the paddlers to develop powerful arms and shoulders and calloused knees. In medium- and large-sized canoes, paddlers sit on the thwarts. Men, women, and children paddle, and either the owner of the canoe or the most experienced person takes the position of steersman.  Especially among the Tlingit, this is considered an honour that usually falls to an older person of rank, often a woman.

In family travel, children are also allowed to paddle, a perfect example of learning by doing. With all of the members of a family or household seated in one canoe, the seating arrangement reflects the living arrangement in their house, where each person is seated according to rank. On long and tedious journeys, paddle songs keep the rhythm of a steady stroke and help to pass the time. On various occasions, especially when visiting at a potlatch and approaching the beach, the paddlers strike the butt end of their paddles in unison against the side of the canoe to beat time and keep the song’s rhythm, and their paddle strokes, going.

Maintenance of Canoes:

The care and maintenance of canoes is of the utmost importance as not only the lives of the crew depend on them, but also the very livelihood of the family or household did too. A chief or wealthy person would retain a canoe maker to maintain his craft in good repair. Regular maintenance of a canoe involved polishing the hull to maintain its speed. Also, whenever it was beached, the canoe would be inverted and covered with old matting, boards, or branches in order to prevent cracking from the sun. Whaling canoes, in particular, were well maintained. No women were ever allowed on board whaling canoes and, when hauled out for the season, the canoe was usually stored inside a shed and braced on the sides to prevent the hull from spreading. The hand and eye of a specialist are, however, required when major repairs have to be undertaken. Damaged or rotten sections of the hull would be cut out and replaced with new wood that is sewn on with cedar withes or spruce root. And cracks and splits in the hull can be sewn closed then coated with pitch gum of spruce or fir to waterproof.   

Bill Reid's Black Eagle Canoe and paddles built in 1987, now part of the collection at the Bill Reid Gallery. Photo by Harry Foster at the Canadian Museum of Civilizaiton, Ottawa.

20th Century to Present Day

By the end of the 19th Century there were an estimated 10,000 canoes on the West Coast. However, following an extended period of systematic repression by the church and government of traditional economic patterns that relied heavily on the canoe, and due to rapid social and technological change, by the early 20th Century knowledge and practice of the canoe culture of the Pacific Northwest had virtually disappeared, despite it being one of the most important aspect of native culture. Only the West Coast and River Canoes continued to be built, although they were now usually powered by outboard engines.

The memory of the canoe culture was kept alive through inter-tribal canoe races, although those canoes had become elongated racing shells carrying an 11-man crew. It was not until the early 1970’s that a few influential artists (i.e. Bill Holm, Duane Pasco, and Steve Brown in Seattle, and Bill Reid in Vancouver) began to study the canoe tradition and begin a renaissance. This was a formidable task, given that they not only had to dream big dreams, but also set aside vast periods of time and sacrifice their own financial security in order to revive the required knowledge and skills.

Through the efforts of these people, what was once a simple mode of transport, allowing people to hunt, fish, gather food, trade and travel, the canoe today has evolved into a healing vessel deeply affecting all of those who come into contact with it. Today the canoe carries with it the knowledge of an ancient culture as well as the dreams and aspirations of a younger generation. It is a vessel of knowledge, symbolizing the cultural rejuvenation of many First Nations as they struggle to retain and rebuild their roots. In fact, the canoe has become a metaphor for community, as everyone must work together, paddling or pulling as a single entity. This commitment to work together involves planning, fund-raising, building, practicing, and travelling to make communities strong and vital in the old cultural ways, which brings families, villages and nations together again to work and share.  

Since the late 1980’s, this cultural resurgence has been marked by a series of inter-tribal “paddles”, or canoe journeys, that have had far greater significance than just the journeys themselves. Communities are once again working for something beyond income, forgetting the clock and living by the tides. They are also hosting other communities on the journey, where once there may have been animosity between them. At each port of call the peoples sing, dance, share their homes and local foods.

Salish Canoe and crew at Victoria festival. Photo by George F. MacDonald, 1996.

The first of these journeys took place in 1986 when the Heiltsuk Nation paddled from Bella Bella to Expo 86 in Vancouver. Then, at the end of Expo, Bill Reid’s “Lootas”, commissioned for the World’s Fair and the first large Haida canoe carved in the 20th Century, was paddled north from Vancouver to Skidegate on Haida Gwaii.  Next, to honour the Washington State Centennial, the “Paddle to Seattle” was launched in 1989, involving 6 canoes and 21 communities. That same year,  “Lootas” was again paddled from Skidegate to Hydaberg, Alaska, and then up the Seine River to Paris.  At this point, the canoe journey concept was catching on, and some structure was required to coordinate and carry them out. Consequently, in 1993 The Qatuwas Festival was begun, and the first event was held at Bella Bella. In 1994 a Tribal Journey was held and 2,000 participants in 23 canoes paddled from Ooweekeno to the opening of the British Commonwealth Games in Victoria. This was followed in 1997 by Qatuwas II, and again during the summer of 2010 with a large canoe festival held in Duncan, B.C.. These journeys rapidly became both an important social and political tool for the First Nations, reinforcing their existence and the continuance of their peoples and cultures. So once again, the canoe has become central to the lives of the maritime-oriented Pacific Northwest Coast peoples. It was, and continues to be, the most sophisticated dugout canoe in the world in terms of speed, sea-worthiness, capacity, beauty, and grace.

Textual information for this page: Neel, 1995; Stewart, 1984; Suttles, 1990.