Canoes have long occupied a special place in the tradition of the indigenous tribes of the Americas, particularly in the northern half. All along the Pacific Northwest, masterfully crafted canoes of many shapes, sizes and forms, were the main mode of transportation until long after European colonization. Adding to this rich history, a team of archaeologists, neighbors and members of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe successfully recovered a nearly 1,000-year-old canoe from the depths of Lake Waccamaw in south-eastern North Carolina.
Stumbling Upon a Native American Canoe, Quite Literally!
The discovery of the Native American canoe was made by three teenagers, Eli Hill, Jackson Holcomb and Creek Hyatt, while they were swimming in the lake during the summer of 2021. It is a significant piece of Native American history that has been buried beneath the lake for hundreds of years. Hill stepped on what he thought was a log, but after attempting to lift it, he and his friends realized it was much more significant, reported local news station WECT.
“We were throwing mussels at each other, and I stepped on it and I thought it was a log,” Hill said. “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.”
After the teenagers stumbled on the discovery at Lake Waccamaw, the family of Hill reached out to the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology. As a result, the team worked to move the canoe closer to the family’s pier.
“That canoe at 28 feet long would have carried many a brave,” said Waccamaw Siouan Chief Michael Jacobs. “We feel like in our heart, it’s a history that we’re still exploring and understanding because this is the first time we’ve had access.” He adds that the Native American canoe is “a rare chance” to learn more about Native American culture in southeastern North Carolina .
A group of divers in Waccamaw removing the Native American canoe from Lake Waccamaw in south-eastern North Carolina. (North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission / Facebook)
The Canoe and the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe: A Historical Reparation
The 28-foot-long (8.53 m) Native American canoe is made of cypress wood and was most likely used for transportation and fishing by Native American communities who inhabited the region at the time. The canoe has been remarkably preserved, with its intricate carvings and designs still visible, reported Fox News .
State Archaeologist John Mintz explained that the canoe is a rare example of southeastern Native American culture and offers an opportunity for the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe to learn more about their ancestors. He also noted that the lengthy removal process was worth it so as to be able to involve the local Indian group and share the discovery with them. This meant that the event was a more authentic experience in and of itself.
The Waccamaw Siouan Tribe has been living in the area for over 10,000 years and is one of eight state-recognized Native American tribes in North Carolina. Chief Michael Jacobs remarked that the canoe “would have carried many a brave” and expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to explore and understand their history further.
For the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe, this discovery is a significant step in understanding their past and connecting with their ancestors. The tribe has faced numerous challenges, including being forcibly removed from their ancestral land in the 1800s and facing persistent discrimination and marginalization since then, reported WRAL News .
“We’re looking forward to examining it, running some tests on it, really finding out and going back to our elders and getting the history of it to where we can teach the truth to our people and know that we’ve got concrete evidence to stand on,” quipped a happy Jacobs.
The Native American canoe is an important part of Native American history. ( Public domain )
Canoes and Indigenous Tribes: A Long History
Canoes have a long history of use among Native Americans , dating back thousands of years. They were an essential tool for transportation and for hunting and fishing in rivers, lakes and oceans, wrote John Lienhard for the University of Houston .
The earliest known canoes in North America were made by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, who created dugout canoes from large cedar trees. These canoes were hollowed out by hand using fire and adzes. The canoes were used for fishing, hunting, trading and transportation. North America is renowned for its freshwater sources, enabled by a massive network of lakes and rivers.
Canoes were an important part of Native American culture , and were often decorated with intricate designs and patterns that were unique to each tribe. They were also sometimes used in religious ceremonies and rituals.
A contemporary seagoing decorated dugout canoe in the Pacific Northwest. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In the eastern part of North America, birchbark canoes were more commonly used. The Algonquian people are particularly known for their skill in building and using birchbark canoes. Birchbark canoes were constructed by stretching birch bark over a frame made of cedar, spruce, or other lightweight wood.
The seams were then sealed with spruce gum, and the canoe was waterproofed with a mixture of pine pitch and animal fat. Birchbark canoes were light and maneuverable, making them ideal for travel through shallow rivers and streams.
In the Great Lakes region, the Ojibwe people were known for their use of the birchbark canoe, which they used to trade with other tribes and to travel long distances for hunting and fishing. The Ojibwe were also known for their skill in building large war canoes, which were used for battles and raids.
The Iroquois people of the northeastern United States also used canoes extensively for transportation and trade. Their canoes were made from elm bark or other tree barks, which were sewn together and then waterproofed with spruce gum and animal fat.
In the southeast, Native American tribes such as the Seminole and the Creek used dugout canoes made from cypress trees. These canoes were used for fishing, hunting, and transportation, and were sometimes used for warfare.
In contemporary history, many Native American tribes continue to use canoes as a way to connect with their heritage and to teach their younger generations about their cultural traditions. Canoeing is also a popular recreational activity among Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike.
Top image: The North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission posted a video showing a group of divers in Waccamaw removing the Native American canoe. Source: North Carolina American Indian Heritage Commission
By Sahir Pandey