April 21, 2017

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Let's go sailing!

1. Introduction and author bio
2. Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood

3. Roughing out the hull
4. Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock
5. Stitch and glue
6. Sanding and gluing
7. Outrigger and booms

8. Cordage
9. Lashing the booms to the hull 
10. Lashing the booms to the float 
11. Sailmaking
12. Rigging the canoe

Mid Atlantic Small Craft Festival
Heading out from St. Michael's, Maryland.


It’s taken a long time to reach this point in my story, but the canoe was actually finished by the fall of 2013—about four months after I started. That August, I took the canoe and my son (then almost 4) up to visit my cousin Allison and her husband, Steve, in New Hampshire, and they took us up to his family’s place on Little Sunapee Lake. This was my first opportunity to actually launch the canoe.

My first notion was to try it just as a paddling canoe. The Wharram's Melanesia design can be built either as a paddling canoe or as a sailing and paddling canoe, which is what I did. So beside the lake I put it together without rigging the sail.

I mounted the ‘iako (booms) and the ama (float), as well as the bamboo set-outs. I am including the first photo below to show that my cousin and I were easily able to lift and carry the canoe to the water. Two people can move this canoe even when the boat is loaded, though it helps to have a sandy beach where you can drag or shove it yourself if you are going alone.

Left: Launching the canoe on Little Sunapee Lake in New Hampshire. Right: My son rejoices as I return from the maiden voyage of paddling out. Note how the curve of the outrigger keeps its nose out of the water. Photos by Steve Pope

Out I went, and the very first thing I noticed was how incredibly stable the canoe is! There is no comparison to your ordinary tippy lake canoe. The outrigger turns this canoe into something more like a catamaran in terms of balance. The width of the platform created between the outrigger and the hull makes it a very stable craft. I paddled out, then came back and picked up my son. Now you can see, once both of us are in the craft, that the stern of the canoe is pretty close to the waterline (my son being much lighter than I am). This had been my concern as soon as I looked at the plans and images on the Wharram website, and will lead me to ultimately modify the canoe. But that’s another day.

Paddling with my son on Lake Little Sunapee. You can see why I wondered about the freeboard, or distance from the water to the deck, toward the stern.

Then we put the sail up. Oh my goodness! The craft is light, the wind was moderate but sure, and away we went, smooth as silk. I had some difficulty figuring how to simultaneously hold the sheet and steer the canoe (hence my eventual addition of the cam cleat) but it was miraculous to be sailing in a boat I had built myself. And, just a reminder, I had no previous boat-building experience, not even that much carpentry. 

Sunapee diptych
Left: Paddling out to catch the wind on Little Sunapee. Right: The classic profile of an outrigger canoe under sail. Photos by Steve Pope

With practice I got my system down and could put the canoe together efficiently in 30 or 40 minutes. Taking it apart is even faster. As I mentioned earlier, the entire craft—dismantled—fits on top of my VW Golf. I can go from my home in Baltimore to Rocky Point on Chesapeake Bay, assemble the canoe, sail for several hours, dismantle and load the canoe, and be back home, all in one afternoon.

Lashing the float and booms
Left: I've set the pieces in place and am preparing to lash the ‘iako to the hull. Right: After the iako are lashed,  I begin assembling the ama. Note the Xs and the Ys in the foreground, lashed in advance. I also carry a spare length of bamboo in case the mast or spar breaks. 

This has changed my perception of living near a large body of water. I grew up in Washington, D.C., not that far from the Chesapeake, but I had no sense of its presence at all. Now it is virtually my backyard.

Scouting the horizon  launching the canoe
Left: The canoe is assembled and rigged. My son, Holden, scouts the horizon as we prepare to leave. Across the water is Hart-Miller Island, about mile away. Right: Shoving off!
I  sealed off the area under the stern for flotation, with a valve to release water as necessary.

Here I want to point out one more minor modification I made to the design. Wharram’s instructions leave the bow and stern compartments open. You are advised to maybe get a bunch of empty plastic bottles (with their lids on) and tuck them in there for flotation. Wharram also advises you try swamping the canoe in shallow water, just to know how it will behave. Well, I never did that, but I did worry about flotation. So I painstakingly sealed the spaces under the bow and stern decks, leaving a valve to let out any water that might get in. It was really difficult figuring the shapes of the pieces to cover these areas—lots of angles and curves—but I managed. This left me feeling much safer.

Then in October 2014, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I took the canoe to the Mid Atlantic Small Craft Festival (MASCF) in St. Michael’s, Maryland. I had attended this festival the previous year, when I was invited as keynote speaker on traditional Oceanic navigation. The festival includes an optional overnight sail 9.5 miles up the Wye River to a charming campsite, and I had done that the previous year as well. I wanted to share the experience with this lovely girl.

Unfortunately, the wind was dead against us going up, and we ended up getting a tow from the safety boat (which had already transported our camping gear to the site). The previous year I paddled the entire way, as there was no wind at all, but that was too much to ask of a new partner. We spent a lovely night with the small group of others who made the trip (all of whom had larger boats, and motors).

Slow progress up the Wye River
On our way up the Wye river—way behind everyone else. 
Camping on the Wye River
The canoe moored at the campground.

The next day sailing back, the wind had shifted almost 180 degrees, and we were again at a disadvantage. The crab-claw sail just does not like to sail into the wind, but is awesome in crosswinds or downwind. Anyway, it was a lovely, sunny day and we tacked a lot, making reasonable time but gradually falling behind everyone else.

Then we reached the one spot to make the turn into the inlet where St. Michaels sits. Here we were open to the bay itself, and the 10-to-12-knot winds had again shifted to—yes, once again—directly in front of us. The sky had darkened, and the water was getting rough. My instincts told me this was serious and that I had to really pay attention. What we did not know was that a flood tide was now mixing with these strong and adverse winds.

So we tacked back and forth, endlessly, each time losing so much ground to leeway drift that we were making very slow progress going forward. But we were getting closer. The safety boat came back and told us he was going in for the evening. He asked us whether we wanted a tow. It was now about 6 p.m., in October. We said no—we were so close! On one tack, we almost arrived at St. Michaels. I decided on the next tack to go waaaaaay out, almost to the other side of the inlet, so that for sure we would reach our goal.

“Prepare to tack,” I announced, and my girl bent over to avoid the swinging spar. I started to sweep with the steering paddle to turn the canoe, then glanced down. There was six inches of water in the boat! “BAIL!!!” I yelled frantically, and she scrambled for the bailer she had been using to manage the little bit of water we had been shipping all along. Then I turned and saw water wash over the stern of the canoe. “We’re going down!” I announced, as the water came up and the canoe sank beneath us. I felt it go down past my feet, and worried that it was truly sinking, but it gradually came back up, leaving a floating bathtub.

The water was warm, thank goodness, and we had been wearing life jackets all along, but I had to scramble for our belongings that were floating away (the safety boat had transported all our camping gear, thank goodness). We tried the trick I had been taught in Micronesia: We stood on the ama in an attempt to angle the hull out of the water to empty it. But the hull did not have enough flotation for this to work, so we had to flag down a nearby catamaran. There were almost no boats on the water, as it was getting dark.

Map showing our outgoing route (red dots) and where we had to start massively tacking on the return route (black line). X marks the spot where we sank.

A surly young man with his partner and elderly parents begrudgingly rescued us with his high-end catamaran. Once we had piled our belongings on his deck, I said, “Now if the three of us just lift the canoe by the booms, we can dump the water out."

“Hey man,” he replied sternly, “I’m not here to save your boat." So I left the sail up to make it easier to spot, and watched it recede into the distance as we motored away. The man got on the radio to the Coast Guard to let them know he had rescued us, and when the Coast Guard asked about our boat, he replied “It’s just a pile of sticks.”

This is a man who has not built his own boat.

We were unceremoniously dropped off a quarter mile from where we needed to be (but where he needed to be), carrying our wet gear and wet selves through the dark and wind and back to the festival. There some friends we had met immediately swung into action to commandeer a speedboat, and we went out to get the canoe.

These are people who have built their own boats.

It was almost dark, but even with the canoe's dark sail, we were able to spot it. It had drifted almost a mile back towards the bay. Then we did as I had suggested earlier: We lifted the boat by the booms and dumped the water out, strapped it alongside, and took it back.


Flooded St. Michaels
The morning after we swamped the canoe, streets in St. Michaels still showed the effect of the flood tide.

The next day, as I was giving a demonstration on traditional canoe-building, a bunch of grey-bearded boat builders stood around my canoe, which was parked on the ground nearby. “I’d put a floor in it,” said one, “and extend those flotation tanks as far as possible." Yes, I thought. And raise the gunwales! I had always worried about how close they were to the waterline, but the Wharram folks had discouraged me from tampering with the design.

Doug sailing
Doug Herman, sailing the Nāmaka‘iwa (eyes of the frigate bird).

Now I am in the process of instigating these design changes, which I hope will make the craft safer and more seaworthy. Someday I will update this blog about that. But for now, I am signing off. This has been the voyage of building an outrigger canoe. It was something I always wanted to do, but I didn't think I had what it took. I learned—and I hope you did, too—that with just a little knowledge, a great deal of perseverance, and help from articles like this and from YouTube videos, anyone can do it. I encourage you to give it a try.

There is nothing quite like setting sail in a craft you built yourself.

Aloha nui,

—Douglas Herman, NMAI

Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. On April 22, as part of the Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit, he will give an illustrated lecture at the museum in Washington, D.C., on traditional leadership and resource management practices in old Hawai‘i. Doug curated the exhibition E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, on view January 2016 to January 2017. He also blogs for the Smithsonian and is the institution's liaison with the round-the-world voyage of the Hōkūleʻa.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

April 03, 2017

Marking the 400th Anniversary of Pocahontas's Death

March 21, 2017, was the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’s death. She was about 22 years old when she died, and both her life and death are being commemorated in London.[1] One key event—a three-day conference titled "Pocahontas and after: Historical culture and transatlantic encounters, 1617–2017"—was organized by the University of London School of Advanced Studies’ Institute for Historical Research and the British Library, and took place March 16 through 18. Pocahontas spent the last nine months of her life in London and was known there as Lady Rebecca.

Pocahontas & Elizabeth R
The famous engraving of Pocahontas (left) made by Simon van de Passe (1595–1647) mirrors the Renold Elstrack (1570–1625 or after) engraving of Queen Elizabeth (right)—and the other 31 engravings of British sovereigns—published in Baziliologia: A Booke of Kings (1618), a collection of portraits that was republished with slightly varying titles.[2] The van de Passe engraving of Pocahontas and engravings of other prominent notables were added to a later edition. Few of any editions survive, and all that do appear to vary in content. An “Expanded Baziliologia” held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford includes the Pocahontas engraved portrait.[3] Left photo: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Right photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Born Amonute, Pocahontas was the daughter of the leader of the powerful Powhatan Confederacy.[4] The confederacy dominated the coastal mid-Atlantic region when, in 1607, English colonists established James Fort, a for-profit colony, along the Chesapeake Bay. Pocahontas, a child at the time, often accompanied her father’s men to the fort, signaling that their mission was peaceful. Amazingly or not, the English arrived poorly equipped, lacked provisions, and were almost entirely dependent on the Powhatan for food. Over the years, Pocahontas was among those who brought food to the fort.

Relations between the English and Powhatan, however, were always fraught. And in 1613 Pocahontas, then about 18 years old, was abducted by the English and held hostage for more than a year. The Christian theologian Alexander Whitaker eagerly began to instruct Pocahontas, already learning to speak English, in the tenets of Anglicanism. While captive, Pocahontas met the colonist John Rolfe, who—according to various English accounts, including his own—fell in love with her. Pocahontas agreed to marry Rolfe and, shortly before her marriage, received a Christian baptism. It was Rolfe who developed the strain of tobacco that would make the colony prosperous, enrich its investors and Britain, and eventually lead to the collapse of the Powhatan Confederacy.

In 1616 Pocahontas traveled to London with Rolfe and their infant son, Thomas. Her trip was sponsored by the James Fort investors. Famously, Pocahontas, accompanied by an entourage of high-standing Powhatan, was feted throughout London. She was twice received in the Court of King James—to be presented to the king and to attend a Twelfth Night masque. Pocahontas never returned home. She died at outset of her return voyage and was buried in Gravesend, an ancient town on the banks of the Thames Estuary.

Pocahontas statue St George's Church
Pocahontas was buried in the chancel (near the altar) of the original St. George’s Church in Gravesend. That church was destroyed by fire in 1727, and Pocahontas is now buried at an unknown location on the grounds surrounding the current St. George’s Church. The bronze Pocahontas sculpture outside St. George’s, a copy of the 1923 statue at James Fort, was presented to the church by the people of Virginia on the 350th anniversary of Pocahontas’s death. Photo by Cher Obediah, 2017.

Although the broad strokes of Pocahontas’s biography are well known—unusual for a 17th-century indigenous woman—her life has long been shrouded by misunderstandings and misinformation, and by the seemingly inexhaustible output of kitsch representations of her supposed likeness. Within a few years after her death, the Theodore De Bry family’s 13-volume publication America, translated into several languages, provided the book-reading public beyond London with what they considered to be their first real and comprehensive glimpse of the New World’s indigenous peoples, including Pocahontas.[5] Four hundred years later, her name has become familiar to children worldwide through Walt Disney Picture’s 1995 animated film Pocahontas, strong on memorable melodies, although weak on historical and cultural accuracy.

It is known that, while she was in London, Pocahontas met Captain John Smith, at one time president of the council for the James Fort colony, and expressed her displeasure with him and those of his countrymen who “lie much.”[6] Those familiar with the facts of Pocahontas’s life, however, are only too aware that her thoughts surrounding the events that dramatically impacted her and her people are largely unrecorded by history. "Pocahontas and after" brought together approximately 50 international scholars—including several Native scholars—from a variety of disciplines to reflect upon what is actually known of Pocahontas’s life and times, on both sides of the Atlantic, and on the ways in which her life has been construed and misconstrued over the last four centuries.

To give but a suggestion of their scope, conference papers ranged in topic from American Indian marriage practices for establishing and maintaining political alliances, to the lives of two English boys allowed to live among the Powhatan in order to learn Algonquian, the biblical significance of the name Rebecca, the startling number of American Indians who voyaged to London in the early 17th century, the James Fort investors’ motivations for bringing Pocahontas to London, and the political meanings embedded in the three representations of Pocahontas on view in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Among those taking part was Chief Robert Gray of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. The Pamunkey people descend from the Powhatan. On the last day of the conference, Chief Gray spoke at the British Library on the history of the Pamunkey. His paper was titled “Pamunkey Civil Rights and the Legacy of Pocahontas.” In the Q&A that followed his presentation, and as a surprise to some, he further addressed the issue of why many Pamunkey people have ambivalent feelings towards Pocahontas. He spoke candidly about Pamunkeys’ general displeasure with Pocahontas’s story having been appropriated by non-tribal members. He shared his people's priority and overriding desire to make known the history of such Pamunkey as Chief George Major Cook (1860–1930), who fought to defend Pamunkey rights during the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation was written into the law, and the period surrounding the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, when the state of Virginia forced all citizens to have their race, “colored” or “white,” registered at birth and forbade interracial marriage. These laws essentially sought to legislate Pamunkeys and other Virginian Indian tribes out of existence. Gray was frank in explaining how Pamunkeys long invoked the name Pocahontas to assert their sovereignty, to no avail, while politically influential Virginians successfully invoked their descent from Pocahontas to have an exemption written into the Racial Integrity Act that classified them as “white.”

Pocahontas continues to hold a singular and singularly contested place in history. "Pocahontas and after" succeeded in conveying to all present that the shroud covering Pocahontas’s life needs to be lifted. For the anniversary week of Pocahontas’s death, and to commemorate her life, the rector of St. George’s Church displayed the church registry that dates back to 1597 and records her burial. In keeping with the Christian and English tradition of acknowledging the death of a person of high social standing, Pocahontas was buried in St. George’s chancel. The registry is poignant evidence of the life of a young Powhatan woman who lived and died in the maelstrom of the British–Powhatan encounter in the early 17th century.

Registry for Rebecca Wrolfe

Registry entry for Rebecca Wrolfe
St. George’s Church registry dating to 1547, open to events in March 1617. The entry for Pocahontas's burial—toward the bottom of the right-hand page, beside a faint X—reads, "21 Rebecca Wrolfe, wyffe of Thomas Wrolf gent, A Virginian Lady borne, was buried in the Channcell." Photos by Cécile R. Ganteaume, Smithsonian.

It seems likely that we will never fully know what Pocahontas thought of her abduction, instruction in the tenets of Anglicanism, marriage to John Rolfe, and experiences in London. But an understanding can be built around her life based, not on fabrications, but on Pamunkey knowledge and scholarly research that cuts through 400 years of appropriations, misinformation, and romanticism. There emerged at the conference a sense that a picture of early 17th century life in the mid-Atlantic region can be brought to light that gives greater insight into the clash of empires that occurred in the heart of the Powhatan Confederacy and that illuminates the historic processes and legacies of European colonization, and Native strategies for confronting them.

Cécile R. Ganteaume

Cecile GanteaumeCécile R. Ganteaume is an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and formerly at the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. A recipient of a Secretary of the Smithsonian’s Excellence in Research Award, Cécile writes on American Indian art, culture, and history. With Paul Chaat Smith, she is co-curator on the upcoming exhibition Americans. Scheduled to January 18, 2018, at the museum on the National Mall, Americans includes a gallery exploring Pocahontas’s unique place in our national consciousness. Cécile's most recent book is Officially Indian: Symbols That Define the United States, published this fall.


[1] Based on English sources, Pocahontas’s birth date is estimated to be 1595.

[2] For a history of the various editions of Baziliologia: A Booke of Kings, see H. C. Levis’s discussion of them in the Grolier Club’s 1913 reproduction of the 1618 edition of Baziliologia: A Booke of Kings, Notes on a Rare Series of Engraved Royal Portraits From William the Conqueror to James I. It is available online.

[3] The text in the oval frame encircling Pocahontas's portrait reads, "MATOAKA AĽS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS: PRINC: POWHATANI IMP: VIRGINIÆ." The text below her portrait reads: "Matoaks als Rebecka daughter to the mighty Prince Powhâtan Emperour of Attanoughkomouck als virginia converted and baptized in the Christian faith, and wife to the wor.ff Mr. Joh Rolfe."

[4] Pocahontas was a nickname given to Amonute by her father. Matoaka was her private name, which she revealed to the English colonists. Rebecca was the Christian name she received when she was baptized. Lady is an English title accorded noblewomen. Pocahontas was recognized as the daughter of an emperor of Virginia. 

[5] Pocahontas entered European history books before she even sailed to London. In 1614, two years before her transatlantic voyage, Ralph Hamor, one of the original James Fort colonists, published A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia. In it he described her abduction. In 1619, the Theodore de Bry family published volume 10 of America and not only recounted the abduction story, but illustrated it with an engraving. In 1624, Jamestown colonist John Smith published his Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles and it included, for the first time, his dramatic account of his capture and imminent death at the hands of Powhatan and his men. He described how his life—and by extension, the colony—was saved by Pocahontas. The Simon van de Passe Pocahontas portrait was published in Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, as well as in certain editions of Baziliologia: A Booke of Kings.

[6] See Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004), pages 154–156.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

April 02, 2017

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Rigging the canoe

1. Introduction and author bio
2. Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood

3. Roughing out the hull
4. Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock
5. Stitch and glue
6. Sanding and gluing
7. Outrigger and booms

8. Cordage
9. Lashing the booms to the hull 
10. Lashing the booms to the float 
11. Sailmaking


The whole canoe
The whole canoe, rigged for sailing, in my backyard.

The rigging for the Melanesia canoe has a few options, including a windsurfer mast and sail, which I’m sure would work really well. But I’m going for traditional here, even with my sail of blue-tarp, so I opted for the crab claw, as discussed in the previous post. This required a mast and spar. (It’s not really a boom. That’s for the more common Marconi rig). These could have been made of light, strong woods, but I used large-diameter bamboo.

Bamboo is very light and pretty strong for its weight. Moreover, it works really well for how the mast and spar are mounted. Wharram’s instructions tell you to make to Y-shaped pieces from tree branches, and then splice them onto your mast and spar. Since I am using bamboo, which is hollow, it is easy for me to simply insert these Ys into the ends of the poles. I used oak for my Ys, so that they would be as strong as possible, and epoxied them for good measure.

Ys & mast
Left: My oak Ys. Right: Inserting the Y into the bamboo mast, the bottom of which I have fiberglassed to strengthen against splitting.

As you can see below, the Y at the bottom of the mast sits atop the foremost ‘iako (boom). Gravity and the sail’s stays keep it there, but it can slide from side to side. That can be good or bad, but mostly it's hard to control, so sometimes I lash it in place. The Y at the end of the spar hooks onto the bottom of the mast. Very simple and easy.

Mast & spar
The mast and lower Y resting on the foremost boom. 

Now rigging this sail requires more rope, and here I have decided on two types. The first is good old manila rope, which has that natural, traditional look. This I have used for the stays (the ropes that stabilize the mast) and the sheet (the rope that controls the sail). I originally also used manila rope for the forestay that attaches to the bow. 

After some trial and error (OK, mostly error), I decided to make some changes. First of all, with the forestay tied to the handle on the front of the canoe I had no way of raising and lowering the sail while under way. I realized, as I careened into shore with a strong tailwind one day, that I’d better be able to do that. Moreover, you have to raise the mast before you even push off from the beach. So first I tied a pulley to the bow, and then I mounted a cleat where I could reach it. Then I purchased some commercial Dacron marine rope. Now, from my seat in the rear of the canoe, I can raise or lower the sail fairly easily.

Pulley & cleat
Left: Pulley attached to the bow. Right: The rope runs from the mast, through the pulley and over to where I can reach it and fasten it to a cleat.

Similarly with the sheet: The instructions show it simply going around the rear ‘iako. Well, I found myself holding the sheet and the steering paddle at the same time, and it got pretty stressful. I could never let go of the sheet. Now I’d sailed on regular sailboats and knew there was way to fix this problem. It’s called a cam cleat, and it has two little spring-loaded cams with teeth on them. You pull the rope through them, and the cams keep it from sliding back out. To change the position, you pull the rope up out of the cams, adjust, then pull it back down into them. Now I can adjust the sail and let go of the sheet, the cam cleat will hold it there. 

Cam cleat & stern rig
Left: The cam cleat. Normally the sheet would just go around the ‘iako on which it is mounted. Right: The sheet goes from the spar, through a rear pulley, and through the cam cleat. I can manage it easily from the stern seat that you can see.

The stays are tied directly to the foremost ‘iako, but this also turned out to make life more difficult than necessary, because they stretch a little and can need some adjusting when you’re out on the water. So I mounted two large screw eyes through which I loop and tie them with slip knots so I can easily undo and redo them. 

Stays & set-outs
Left: The stays (ropes on either side of the mast) are run through screw eyes on the forward ‘iako. Right: View of the bamboo set-outs.

I also—and I think this was suggested by the building instructions—made a pair of set-outs for each side of the canoe. I used more lengths of large-diameter bamboo and lashed them together in two bunches. These I tie lightly to the second and third ‘iako—lightly so that I can flip or slide them out of the way if I need to be paddling instead of sailing. These set-outs are useful under sail with good wind: when the canoe starts to heel over, I sit out on the opposite side to bring it back down. This is especially important if the ama (float) is on the lee side (away from the wind), in which case it is being pushed down into the water and causing more drag.

Then there is the matter of steering this canoe. I had, in my youth, tried sailing a regular sail canoe—a normal canoe rigged with a sail and leeboards that you steer with a paddle. So at first that’s how I tried to steer this one, and that worked fine if the wind was light. But if the wind was strong, the regular-sized paddle didn’t do the job, so I broke down and carved a proper steering paddle according to Wharram’s instructions. 

Steering paddle
Three stages of making the steering paddle. Left to right: The three pieces of wood glued together; the shape cut out and handle rounded; the blade honed down. 

This is a fairly simple operation. You glue two pieces of two-by-four on either side of a two-by-two. Next you cut out the paddle shape. And then you work with a plane to shave it down into a blade. This took a while, and the two-by-fours were pine with some knots in them, which made it a little more work, but in the end, I had a large steering paddle. 

Starting a paddle
Wharram provides detailed measurements for making the steering paddle. Left: Cutting out the shape of the blade. Note that the handle has already been rounded. Right: I have marked the thicknesses along the edge of the blade and have started planing it down.

I enjoyed carving this paddle so much that I figured I could do more. I wanted a paddle for my son, who was then about six. So I bought a poplar board from the hardware store, used an existing paddle to trace the shape, then cut it out and shaped it into a paddle. Just for fun, I carved and painted (as best I could) a humuhumunukunukuapua‘a on it—the Hawaiian state fish. 

Two paddles
Three paddles, two homemade. Left: The steering paddle next to an ordinary canoe paddle, to show how much larger the steering paddles is. Right: The paddle I carved for my son—large enough that he can grow into it. 
My try at a humuhumunukunukuapua‘a, the Hawaiian state fish, carved and painted on my son's paddle blade.

Unlike the sail canoe of my youth, the Melanesia does not have leeboards, much less a centerboard, so “leeway” is a problem under sail. That is, when you are sailing at an angle to the wind, the canoe is pushed sideways in addition to being pushed forward. This giant steering paddle is supposed to be used like a moveable leeboard: You stick it straight up and down, moving it forward or aft as necessary to steer the canoe. You are not supposed to use it like a rudder, which is my inclination. I am still getting used to this. 

Now it's time to put this all together and go for a sail! 

—Douglas Herman, NMAI

Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. On April 22, as part of the Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit, he will give an illustrated lecture at the museum in Washington, D.C., on traditional leadership and resource management practices in old Hawai‘i. Doug curated the exhibition E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, on view January 2016 to January 2017. He also blogs for the Smithsonian and is the institution's liaison with the round-the-world voyage of the Hōkūleʻa.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

March 23, 2017

The Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854

On March 23, 2017, the Treaty of Medicine Creek (1854) was installed in the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The treaty, on loan from the National Archives and Records Administration, will remain on display through August 2017. Here, museum historian Mark Hirsch recounts the origins of the treaty and highlights a key provision that secured the fishing rights of the nine Puget Sound Indian nations and bands that signed the agreement. 

NAA Walla Wall 08602800
Gustav Sohon (1825–1903), Coming for the Walla Walla Council, May 18, 1855. Colored pencil, watercolor, and ink on laminated mat. Image 20.3 x 20.3 cm. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. NAA INV 08602800


The words “broken” and “treaty” figure prominently in contemporary discussions on American Indian history. For good reason. Today, most historians agree that the United States violated many, if not all, of the roughly 371 treaties with Native nations ratified from 1778 to 1871. Yet the story of Indian treaties is more than a chronicle of coercion and bad faith. As the historian Alexandra Harmon reminds us, the narrative arc of treaty history makes “ironic twists and turns” and produces unexpected outcomes that have bolstered Native rights and tribal sovereignty.

The Treaty of Medicine Creek, with the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and other tribes and bands of southern Puget Sound, was the first of four agreements the U.S. made with the Native peoples of Western Washington during a 37-day period in 1854–55. Although 63 tribal leaders signed the treaty, they and their people soon came to regret it. For in doing so they relinquished 2.5 million acres of tribal land to the U.S. in exchange for three 1,280-acre reservations, $32,500 paid over 13 years, and other considerations that aimed to assimilate Indians into European–American culture.

Flash forward to 1974. The descendants of the Medicine Creek Treaty signers embrace the old agreement. They consider it a source of Indian rights, a font of tribal traditions, and a recognition of sovereign nationhood.

What a difference 120 years make!

The shift in Native perceptions of the Medicine Creek Treaty turns on language found in Section 3, which states that, “The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.” 

Isaac Stevens LOC
Isaac Ingalls Stevens, ca. 1860. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. LC-BH82- 5175 A

We tend to think that foresighted and hard-bargaining tribal leaders pressured American treaty commissioners to include such language in their treaty. After all, the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and other southern Puget Sound tribes and bands depended on salmon fishing for survival. Yet the evidence suggests that the impetus for recognizing tribal fishing rights at Medicine Creek came from Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–62), the lead U.S. treaty negotiator.

An ambitious graduate of West Point, the 36-year-old Stevens was the governor of Washington Territory—a vast and sprawling area that included northern Idaho and western Montana—as well as its superintendent of Indian Affairs. To him fell responsibility for negotiating land cession treaties with the Indians of the territory.

Acquiring legal title had become a matter of urgency in 1850, when the U.S. authorized white settlers to claim Native lands under a new homesteading act. Land cessions were needed to “extinguish” Indian claims to their homelands.

When he arrived at Medicine Creek, Stevens brought already-drafted treaty language that would be read to the approximately 600 to 700 tribal delegates who converged on the treaty ground on Christmas Eve 1854. The draft reflected a recent trend in U.S. Indian policy: Rather than removing tribes to far-flung lands, U.S. officials hoped to make treaties that consolidated Indians on small parcels, or reservations, within their original homelands.

Stevens’s treaty also reflected some understanding of the cultures of the Puget Sound Indians. He knew that salmon fishing was central to their lives, that tribal leaders would never countenance a treaty that removed them from their homelands’ streams, rivers, and saltwater bays. He also knew that U.S. Indian officials were stingy and that allowing Indians to fish on their former lands would reduce the government’s responsibility for feeding them. Last, Stevens knew that incoming white settlers would need access to Indian labor. For these reasons, Stevens’s treaty recognized Indian rights to leave their newly created reservations to work, hunt, and especially fish for salmon at their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

The tribal delegates who attended the Medicine Creek Treaty expected to discuss and negotiate the terms of the agreement. But Stevens was not of a mind to negotiate. Ultimately the treaty was signed as written and forwarded to Washington, where it was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1855.

Medicine Creek 1-2
"Treaty between the United States and the Nisqualli, Puyallup and Other Indians at Medicine Creek, Washington." 1854. First page, recto and verso. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

There is little doubt that the tribal leaders were confused by the proceedings. An interpreter read the terms of the treaty to them using the Chinook trade jargon, a 500-word pidgin language that had no words for Western concepts of land ownership, fishing rights, and other principles invoked in the treaty.

Leschi WA Hist Soc
Portrait of Nisqually Chief Leschi, painted by an unknown artist in 1894. Watercolor on paperboard. Washington State Historical Society, cat. 200.

An X appears next to the name of the Nisqually tribal leader Leschi (1808–58), but there is reason to believe his mark may have been forged. Certainly Leschi was angered by the treaty’s plan to relocate the Nisqually to a small reservation atop a wooded bluff, away from the river where they traditionally harvested salmon. Leschi also visited neighboring tribes who were preparing to negotiate treaties with the U.S., urging them to place no faith in Stevens. As tribal resentment spread through the region, so, too, did white fears of Indian unrest. In 1855 the growing atmosphere of tension, distrust, and cultural misunderstanding led to violence and war. For eight months tribal warriors and volunteer militiamen engaged in skirmishes that cost lives on both sides.

In November 1856 territorial authorities captured Leschi, who was put on trial for allegedly killing an American soldier. Leschi’s attorneys not only proclaimed his innocence, but argued that an act committed during wartime could not be punished in civilian courts. The trial ended in a hung jury.

But Leschi’s troubles were not over. After a one-day retrial, a jury of non-Indians in a different venue found him guilty. Although his lawyers presented new, exculpatory evidence, the Territorial Supreme Court upheld the conviction. On February 19, 1858, 300 people gathered around an outdoor gallows near Fort Steilacoom, south of present day Tacoma, to witness his execution.

Leschi proclaimed his innocence to the end, and many people, including his hangman, believed him. “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” Charles Grainger recalled years later, “and I believe it yet.”

Quileute salmon-fishing hooks, ca. 1890. Washington. Iron, wood, cordage, split plant fiber. 20 x 7.5 cm, cord 120 cm; 20 x 8.4 cm. 5/7591 | NMAI Photo Services, Smithsonian

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Native peoples of the Puget Sound region continued to remember Leschi as a great tribal leader and a wrongly convicted man. Today a neighborhood in Seattle, a city park, a marina, and a school on the Puyallup Indian Reservation bear his name. In 2004, 146 years after his execution, Leschi was exonerated at a historical retrial presided over by the chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.

In the 20th century, the Native peoples of Puget Sound also remembered and continued to invoke fishing rights guaranteed under the Medicine Creek Treaty. Exercising those rights, however, was now challenged by increasingly stringent state regulations that prohibited Indians from harvesting salmon out of season and without state fishing licenses. For state officials, U.S. treaties that guaranteed Indians the right to fish in their “usual and accustomed stations” were vestiges of a bygone era, ancient promises that held no purchase in modern America.

Puget Sound Indians never wavered in the belief that their treaty-recognized fishing rights were inviolate. “We have this treaty right, the supreme law of the land under their Constitution,” the Indian fishing rights advocate Valerie Bridges (Nisqually, 1950–70) declared. “It’s a treaty we’re fighting for.”

It was this fundamental belief in the sanctity and power of the Medicine Creek Treaty that helped inspire the great fish-in protests on the salmon rivers of Western Washington in the 1960s and ’70s. Those acts of resistance fixed national attention on Indian treaty rights and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the modern tribal sovereignty movement that continues to define life in Indian Country today.

—Mark Hirsch

Mark Hirsch is a historian at the National Museum of the American Indian. His research interests include 19th- and 20th-century social and cultural history, U.S. Indian policy, Native–European contact, and the making of the modern world.

Source for the observation that treaty history makes “ironic twists and turns”: Alexandra Harmon, “Indian Treaty History: A Subject for Agile Minds,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 106:3 (Fall, 2005): 358.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

March 17, 2017

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Sailmaking

1. Introduction and author bio
2. Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood

3. Roughing out the hull
4. Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock
5. Stitch and glue
6. Sanding and gluing
7. Outrigger and booms

8. Cordage
9. Lashing the booms to the hull 
10. Lashing the booms to the float 


Pandanus plant
Pandanus growing in the village of Inarahan, Guam. The fruits of some species are edible.

Pacific Islanders didn’t have cloth as we know it—woven with threads of fabric. Sure, there was barkcloth (known as tapa or kapa in Hawai‘i), but this is closer to paper than to cloth. In fact, it’s made from the paper mulberry tree (wauke, in Hawaiian) by much the same method as traditional papermaking. It is felted rather than woven, and not strong enough for a sail. On top of that, on these remote islands there were no large mammals to provide hides. Besides, animal hide does not do well in water, and sails do get wet.

Things woven by Tan Floren
A small sample of the work of master pandanus weaver Tan Floren Meno Paulina. I am reliably told that making hats, far left, is the most difficult art of pandanus weaving.

The answer was truly ingenious: leaves. That is, leaves of the pandanus tree (hala), which are several feet long and very fibrous. Pandanus, sometimes called screwpine because of its corkscrew growing pattern, is one of the “canoe plants” that Pacific Islanders took with them on the canoes as they migrated across the ocean. Woven pandanus products are still used widely in the region, from small baskets and containers to large mats. And sails.

Tan Floren Meno Paulino (Tan is an honorific for female elders), a master pandanus weaver on Guam, explained to me the processing of pandanus. The hala leaves (lauhala) are picked and dried in the sun. Once a leaf is dry, a simple tool is used to strip off the thread of thorns that runs along each side. The leaf is then rolled into a coil, which sits for a while. When it is unrolled, you have a nice flattened strip of fiber. The leaf can then be pulled through a very simple gizmo that slices it into even widths for weaving. These can be very fine, for small or detailed projects, or wide for mats and sails.

Lourdes Yidwechog drying pandanus
Lourdes Yidwechog on Ulithi Atoll lays out pandanus leaves to dry.
Floren prepares fiber strips
Clockwise from upper left: Tan Floren uses a very simple knife to strip the thorny edge off the dried leaves. Then she rolls each dried leaf into a coil; when she unrolls it, she has a nice flattened strip of fiber. The leaf is pulled over a simple device that allows the user to space several blades evenly to cut lauhala into strips.
Tan Floren
Tan Floren, weaving.
Twill weave BPBM
Twill weaving on a sail in the collections of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Now pandanus mats are still pretty common throughout the Pacific. They are cheap and easy to make, last a long time, and are infinitely useful. But the standard over-and-under box weaving that is used to make mats is not the same as that used for sails. Samples in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu show that sail-weaving uses a twill pattern—over two and under two. This is said to provide more strength for flexing in heavy winds. One doesn’t see this much anymore.

Sails were apparently made from a series of mats stitched together. Here is a WWII-era photo from Ulithi Atoll taken by Marshall Paul Wees, a U.S. Navy doctor stationed there during the war. You can see that the men have staked out the sail pattern on the ground with pegs and string, and are then stitching together a series of strip-shaped mats into a sail.

Men stitching mats Ulithi Atoll
Men stitching mats together to make a sail. Ulithi Atoll, ca. 1944. Their pattern is outlined in stakes and string. Photo by Dr. Marshall Paul Wees.
Needles  Bishop Museum
Bone needles in the collection of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Back in the old days, stitching would have been done with needles made from bone, usually bones of large sea birds. Here is an old image of bone needles from the Bishop Museum.

These days the process is more prosaic, since the fabrics and tools are available ready-made. Wharram’s Melanesia design uses what’s commonly called a crab claw sail, after its shape. This shape was common throughout much of the Pacific, though the sailor and scholar David Lewis speculated that it was replaced in central Polynesia by Micronesian-style sails like the one shown on the Carolinian-style canoe below.

Ulithian canoe under sail
A Carolinian-style canoe with a lovely pandanus sail, ca. 1944. Off Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands. Photo by Dr. Marshall Paul Wees.
Cut-out tarp
Blue tarp from the hardware store, with the sail shape cut out of it.

Because my canoe is a cheap do-it-yourself project, my sail is made from common blue tarpaulin from the hardware store. It doesn’t look fancy, and it won’t last a terribly long time since the plastic breaks down in sunlight, but it certainly is inexpensive!

I must admit, I thought making the sail for this boat would be the most boring part. A lot of stitching, stitching, and stitching. After hewing logs into outrigger and booms, the idea of such minute work had little appeal. I was so wrong!

Working on the sail on the floor
One edge done, almost. Note the rolled pandanus mat, right, and the giant clam shell, upper left.

Step one is to cut the sail shape out of the tarp. The instructions weren’t as clear on how to do this as I would have liked, but I managed. Here is the tarp after I had cut out the pattern.

Next you lay a rope along the two sides that attach to the mast and the spar (the luff and the foot, if you must), but not the curve (or leech). The edge of the tarp is then folded over, and you use a very simple large stitch to attach this rope inside the tarp. I used polyester thread intended for exterior usage.

So, on a hot summer day in Baltimore, with the giant windows in my lofty apartment open, I sat on the floor in my lavalava stitching this sail, listening to a CD of Micronesian songs and chants. It was easy to feel that I was in a canoe house somewhere in the Pacific, doing what men have done for millennia: making a sail. It was wonderful.

The next step is to lay a second rope alongside the outside of the edge you have just stitched, and to stitch it on heavily every six inches. Basically, you are attaching loops of rope on the outside of the sail to the rope stitched inside the edge of the sail. These loops are what will be used to attach the sail to the mast and boom. A whole lot of stitching. The top edge (or leech) of the sail is simply stitched for reinforcement, since it is not attached to anything.

Stitching the ropes to the sail
Half-inch stitches secure a rope into folds along the edges that attach to the mast and boom (left). A second rope stitched to the outside creates loops used for lashing (right).

Now you can see the edge of the sail where it is attached to the mast. Clearly visible are both the rope inside the material, and the rope stitched to the outside every six inches, creating loops. Another rope passes through these loops and around the mast and boom. It’s so easy my five-year-old son could help.

My son lashing the sail
My son helping to lash the sail.

And voilà! A sail! I painted a frigate bird on it, because I named this canoe Namaka‘iwa, “eyes of the frigate bird.”

Full sail with frigate bird
The finished sail lashed to mast and boom.

Now to the last step: rigging the canoe and getting ready to sail it. 

—Douglas Herman, NMAI

Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. On April 22, as part of the Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit, he will give an illustrated lecture at the museum in Washington, D.C., on traditional leadership and resource management practices in old Hawai‘i. Doug curated the exhibition E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, on view January 2016 to January 2017. He also blogs for the Smithsonian and is the institution's liaison with the round-the-world voyage of the Hōkūleʻa.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment