Cherokee Dugout Canoe

Prior to European contact, there were two ways for a Cherokee to get from point A to point B. He could walk. He could take a canoe.

The dugout canoe was a mammoth undertaking. Made from hardwood trees, the boat typically needed to be about forty feet in length, big enough to seat twenty men. This meant a massive log that weighed several tons.

Since such a huge log couldn’t be transported on land, it was always cut down as close to the river as possible. But how to cut it down? Stone tools were not effective for huge tree girths, and the Cherokee lacked chain saws…or even steel-bladed axes.

Using his habit of making things from whatever was readily available, the tool selected for felling the tree was fire. Before building a fire at the base of the tree, a coating of mud and straw was applied to the trunk at about head-height. It was shaped out into a thick girdle that encircled the tree and protected it from burning down, allowing the Cherokees to focus on burning only the lower part of the trunk. The wattle-and-daub method was also the way that Cherokees built their homes.

Once the fire was kindled at the base of the tree, sticks with stone points were used to chip away the charred trunk, accelerated the process. Once the fire and scraping had chewed sufficiently far through the trunk, the weight of the tree caused it to fall. As soon as the tree was down the canoe makers went to work removing the bark. Waiting even a day would cause the sap to rise and fuse the bark to the inner skin of the trunk–removing it then would be time-consuming and laborious.

Instead, by immediately cutting into the bark, the entire bark of the log could be removed with relative ease, and if done correctly, in one piece. This complete skin was sometimes used to roof the Cherokee houses.

The ends of the canoe were cut and fashioned into a point so that the canoe could move in either direction. Next, a series of fires were started on the top of the stripped log. The fires had to be tended–neither too big nor too little–and as they burned out the surface of the log, the Cherokees used hand tools to scrape and hollow out the log.

The procedure was repeated on the bottom of the canoe to make it flat. Finally, the canoe was coated in bear grease to waterproof the wood. This had to be done periodically to prevent the wood from drying out and cracking. Given the incredible amount of effort required to make a canoe, it was important to preserve it and take care of it–a far cry from the built-in obsolescence and throwaway products of today!

The rule for making the canoe was simple: anyone who intended to use it had to help make it…another good and ancient rule that we could live by and improve our communities with in the 21st Century.

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