Lower Chinook and Clatsop
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Exchange Value of a Canoe

"A canoe was a set unit of value. Our main money was a fathom of the hicore or dentalium shells. And it was either, the big ones, and then the little , That's a set money was a fathom of, you know, strung, big dentalium shells, or strung little dentalium shells. And then there were a very few other things that also had a set value, and it was associated with those shells, but a canoe is one, a slave is another" (Tony Johnson interview: 2002).

"One for the sea, one for the river..."

Excerpt from Alexander Henry's journal on November 16, 1813:

"Their canoes are many, and of various dimensions; one for the sea, one for the river, and the smaller kind for fishing. We observed some men playing a certain game, which is very common among them. While at this camp we saw a large sea canoe coming from the opposite side of the Columbia, which proved to be that of Comcomly, the chief of the Chinooks, who was himself seated in the middle, alongside one of his favorite women, La Blanche. This canoe was paddled by six men, one at each end, and the other four two abreast; they kept regular time in paddling. Their manner of loading the stern foremost; this is with a view to preserve the sharp stem of the canoe, and at the same time to break the surf, and prevent the canoe from filling with water" (Henry in Coues 1965:Vol II:750).

Chinookan canoe bailers

"The finest we ever saw..."

"Their canoes are the finest we ever saw; they are made of the large white Cedar hewn out with great labor. They are constructed with a high bow and stern, which are separate from the main vessel, and so neatly put on, that the joints will not admit water. They are very light, and the edges are ornamented with Sea shells" (Johnson and Winter: 1932 Reprinted from 1846).

Forests in Oregon
(Swan: 1857)
Canoe repair
University of Oregon Special Collections & University Archives; Bowman Collection

Portion of same image above.
Courtesy of University of Oregon Special Collections & University Archives; Bowman Collection

John Dunn describes Chinook canoes and skill in 1840's.
“Corps coveted tribal canoes, stole one.”

Joe Scovell , chairman of the Clatsop-Nehalem Tribe provides additional historical and contemporary information on the history of the canoe and the carving of the Dragonfly in this article, “Corps coveted tribal canoes, stole one” from the Statesman Journal, November 7, 2005.

Fort Clatsop > Culture > Canoe People

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George Lagergren

Carving a
Traditional Canoe

One Tree
(Material for Canoe)

Living Canoe
Dragonfly & Potlack
“The Dragonfly”

Carving a Traditional Canoe

"Chenook Canoe", drawing by James G. Swan (Swan: 1857)
Courtesy The University of Montana, Mansfield Library, K. Ross Toole Archives.
"I'm carving this canoe because I feel real strongly that we've got to remember how to do these things. Our old people really had something of value and that we need to maintain it. In my opinion the very best people I've met in my life, are our oldest, old time Indians. What they were doing is of value, and I want to do it.
Tony Johnson carving canoe
in the shops at Ft. Clatsop.

K. Lugthart photo.
"So I spent more than ten years now, sitting around with those people trying to visit with them and learn what's the right thing to do, and how to do it. I want to have us remember how it really is. Rather than say, 'My grandpa could make a canoe, or my great grandpa or something, well, I want my boy to come up and say, well my dad can make a canoe and so can I.

"We're building these canoes for our culture, basically, to just have a means of moving on the water like our ancestors. Now, we have a desire to use them. We're planning on a first salmon ceremony that would run over a series of years for us, and, for that ceremony, I really hope that we can go out and get our fish, our ceremonial fish.

"At this time, we really don't have the right to just fish. To get the ceremonial fish actually laying in our net, and pulling our net into this canoe, or another is very, very important to me" (Tony Johnson interview: 2002).

Ocean-Going and Sweetwater Canoes

"This is an ocean going canoe, it's on the small end of that, but this is kind of what you'd call a seal hunting sized canoe. So, you know, just a couple, two, three people can run it, and all the design attributes, the way that they're put together is to run in the ocean. They're refined, they've been refined for thousands, tens of thousands, whatever, of years to, to the point that they're at today.

"This is a Chinook canoe, that's how it was referred to. This style of canoe was probably from Tillamook country, south of here, up to the west coast of Vancouver Island. This is a saltwater canoe, not ever used in sweetwater. You don't run in sweetwater with it, it's a saltwater canoe.

"A sweetwater canoe is a shovel-nosed canoe, and it's just more of a round bottom and a long, real slow sloping bow and stern, and it's just a different rig. They don't have these sharp, cutwaters. This kind of sharp, cutwater is really great for a saltwater canoe, but if you tried to turn sideways in a current in this kind of canoe, soon as, if you try to go cross current, soon as that water's just going to hit these cutwaters and just turn you, turn you, turn you. You know, it wants to keep the nose or stern, which ever you're backing in, wherever you're backing into the current it wants to shove it down stream. Those shovel-nosed canoes are real fair and so the water just moves underneath them" (Tony Johnson interview:2002).

A sweetwater canoe – this one is a river canoe used by the Cowlitz tribe,
as drawn by James G. Swan. (Swan: 1857)


"It's a very unique paddle, right, because it's a crescent bottom, and that really is a cultural trait of Chinook. It's one thing that Chinooks do, that I don't think any other people around us do. I've seen notes from other tribes, other Indians, where they made these paddles, but they only use them for specific purposes, so their ocean going paddle is always, a, like a, kind of diamond shape, more like a typical American paddle.

"But this is very much a Chinook style, and the point of this is moving through strong tides, strong currents. It's a means of holding your canoe in one place, by locking into those roots and rocks. We use this kind of paddle for basically everything,

You know, they just have a real fine slow line" (Tony Johnson interview:2002).

“Chenook Paddle"
 Traditional crescent shaped Chinook paddle, drawn by James Swan (Swan: 1857).
Courtesy The University of Montana, Mansfield Library, K. Ross Toole Archives.


One Tree (Material for Canoe)


"It used to be that a quarter mile from here, a half mile from right here, anyplace that you'd stand in Lower Chinook country, anywhere where our five bands were living, I'd say within a mile, you would have found a log that in some respect was suitable for canoes. Then, of course, they were very picky, because they had better choices.

"Three hundred years ago I could have walked a quarter mile from right here and found better material than it took me two, three years to find for this log, and, or for this canoe. And that's just exceedingly frustrating, I don't know if you can see all the bug work and everything that's in the canoe. That's a product of basically our environment being so affected.

"There are good trees in the neighborhood, that is, I mean in Chinook country. There are two or three stands of good old growth timber. But they're very limited, and by their nature now that they're still here, they're very also protected. So I doubt that anytime soon the Chinook tribe will be taking a log out of our own country for our own uses.

"This log came from the Cascade Mountains at about four thousand feet, and because of that, and growing, you know, growing at that high of an altitude and getting to the size that it is, and you know, probably, more than half the year in the snow. This log is eleven hundred and eighty years old, and so it's a fantastic piece of wood for that reason and it has a lot of power to it, I mean, it's a strong piece of wood, but also by growing that long and in that rough environment and everything else.

"And then actually I was looking at a lot of standing trees to take down for the canoe, and the very straightest, minimum, minimally tapering log that I could find was laying down, had all its bark on it, looked pretty good. And this log had probably been there ten years or less on the ground, but by just growing that long and what have you, it lost some of its resistance to bugs, and so there's quite a lot of bug work in this, and that's real unusual.

"A log of this size, to get to this size down here, it's maybe only three hundred and fifty years, two hundred and fifty, three hundred fifty, five hundred, seven hundred, you know, not anywhere near the amount of time it took to get to this size up there. And a log that's in that range, five hundred years, seven hundred years, a cedar log, there's no chance of a bug working it.

"Cedar's just really, you know, it's nature is to resist the bugs, and so you might have some issues like heart checks, and different things that happen in it, but the bug work is real unusual to find to this extent in a log. You might find in a log around here that's laid on the ground for hundred years, but you can find a log that's laid on the ground for a hundred years here that doesn't have that, too, so.

"In the old days you had a very fine piece of wood that was picked over with a lot of time and thought spent in it. And generally that canoe would be a whole beautiful piece of wood as it came out of the log. Instead, I've spent a huge amount of time just patching this canoe, before in fact it's even done. And this log also ended up growing at a strange angle, and had kind of a little monster in it or something, because when we opened the canoe up, seeing this canoe open, one side just opened beautifully and the other side didn't want to move very well, and I don't know if it was growing at a funny angle or what. But when it actually decided to move, it just popped open and left a big crack on one side, very big crack" (Tony Johnson interview:2002).

Steaming a Canoe

"Well, there's kind of a trick to steaming a canoe. Basically, four fingers or so of water is put in the bottom of this canoe and then hot rocks are heated outside and those rocks are added to the inside of the canoe, boiling the water, softening all the wood. As the sides pull out, it lifts the ends up, and that's how you get to this kind of final shape" (Tony Johnson interview:2002).
Living Canoe

"For this canoe, our insistence was if we're going to carve a canoe, well we have to carve a traditional canoe that's a living canoe. Because all we've ever learned about how you carve to make canoes is that, you know, you are transforming something aren't you. Asking this log to be a canoe, well if we are asking that, it, basically, we'd have to be saying we're making a museum piece out of you, you know, that just doesn't seem right.

 Tony Johnson’s completed canoe
in the water near mouth of Columbia during
First Salmon Ceremony in May, 2002.

"This is the, cedar logs want to become, some of these logs want to become canoes, but I don't think they want to become museum pieces, so this will be a living canoe for us. We have to follow all the old rules as to how we take care of it, so that it'll take good care of us out on the water" (Tony Johnson interview:2002).
“The Dragonfly”
Making a Dragonfly Photos courtesy of Dick Basch