CALAIS, Maine — Using traditional methods and materials and patterning their work after a model from the 1800s, volunteers and craftsmen are building an ocean-sailing birch bark canoe at the Passamaquoddy Heritage Center.
Young men weave roots to secure the framing, a grandmother carves wood pegs to hold the construction together and others are preparing the traditional designs that will be cut into the birch bark’s surface.
The canoe is a replica of a 20-foot canoe on display at the Maine State Museum. That canoe was built by Peter Atwin before 1872. It was purchased by a well-known fur buyer, Manley Hardy, who paddled it down the St. Croix River, stopped at Pleasant Point and outfitted it with a sail and then sailed it to Brewer. The re-creation of the canoe has been funded through the Passamaquoddy Historic Preservation Office with a grant from the National Parks Service.
Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s historian who obtained the grant, said it is easy to reflect on the tribe’s culture as he works on the canoe. Soctomah was lashing the upper edge of the canoe with long strips of split spruce roots.
“This is how it felt to make something so important to our culture,” he said. “The rivers were our highways and canoes meant everything. They were the way to transport our families between the winter and summer grounds.”
Soctomah said he was pleased to see so many tribal members dropping in to work on the project.
“In the past, this would have been a community event, a community activity,” he said. “This brings our culture back to life.
Soctomah said the canoe was the first tribal canoe built in Calais in more than 150 years. He added that museums across the United States and Canada say the historic Passamaquoddy canoes in their collections are the most well-built and durable.
Soctomah worked under the watchful eye of David Bridges of Pleasant Point and Steve Cayard of Wellington, both master canoe builders. Cayard said the canoe was researched over the winter and supplies were gathered throughout the year, including the single piece of birch bark that covers the entire canoe. “We began working on Aug. 1,” he said.
“We want to teach the tribal members about the materials of their culture,” Bridges said. “It is one way to stay connected to the land and our culture. You have to have an understanding of the land to build this canoe.” Bridges said the methods used in the construction date back 3,500 years. “My grandfather was Sylvester Gabriel, one of the last of the old-time canoe builders. This has been a lifelong mission for me.”
Bridges said that once completed, the canoe will belong to the Passamaquoddy museum but will be a functional canoe, not an exhibit.
Soctomah said when the canoe is completed — likely by the end of September — three ceremonial send-offs will be held: from Calais, where it was built; from Indian Township, where all the materials were gathered; and from Pleasant Point, which is the tribe’s ocean connection.