YOUNGSTOWN – It took most of the summer to build and lots of manpower to heave a nearly 400-pound dugout canoe into the Niagara River at Old Fort Niagara on Tuesday – all for a cruise lasting about 10 minutes.
But the launch signaled a revival of an 8,000 year-old Native American tradition. And the dugout’s next journey may be to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Beginning in June, Native American craftsmen burned and chopped, converting a 17-foot log into a dugout canoe – the transportation of choice on North American waterways centuries ago.
Tuesday, the canoe – looking suspiciously out of place among speed boats zipping along the Lower Niagara River – was piloted by experienced canoeists Jacob Henry, 24, and Aidan Patterson, 11, both members of the Tuscarora Nation.
The project is a joint venture of Old Fort Niagara, the Tuscarora Environment Program and Haudensaunee Environmental Task Force.
Belinda Patterson, Fort Niagara’s native interpreter, came up with the idea.
“This was a new project for all of us, but we are hoping to do it again next year,” Patterson said.
Admittedly, the craftsmen “cheated a bit” on the antiquity front, felling the tree with a chain saw, she said. But once at the fort, the craftsmen chipped away at the log with metal tools and burned out the cavity – the traditional method used by Native Americans to build these canoes.
Marlin Wilson, 18, of the Tuscarora Nation, and Hawk Robinson, also 18, of the Seneca Nation, fashioned the canoe throughout the summer, giving visitors at Old Fort Niagara a close-up view of what it takes to make a dugout.
Both said they had never done anything like this before.
Wilson said the work gave him a new appreciation of his heritage.
“I’ll be honest, I was never really into the whole native tradition, but working here, doing this, made me want to start reading some books,” he said. “It was pretty fun. A lot of people seemed interested and would come up and talk to us.”
On hand for Tuesday’s launch was Neil Patterson Sr., a member of the Tuscarora Nation Council, who said he would like to see more native re-creations, which give people greater respect for history.
“This is a novelty for us, but it was a necessity back then,” Patterson said. “Once you see this, you see what not just Indians, but what people had to go through back then.”
Robert Emerson, director of Old Fort Niagara, said there are many facets of the fort’s history that are overlooked.
“The dugout canoe project gave people a chance to watch a demonstration in action every day, and it helped to highlight the native presence at the fort,” he said. “The natives were here before the Europeans arrived, of course, but even after they arrived, there was tremendous interaction with the natives and various garrisons here. It was also a process, and people love watching things being built.”
Emerson added that burning out a dugout canoe is something we read about but rarely see.
Patterson said building the canoe helped the two craftsmen learn about and preserve the skills of their ancestors.
Emerson said no one knows exactly how far back the tradition goes. The Haudenosaunee people – a confederacy of nations including Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora – used dugouts on larger bodies of water in their own territories but preferred the more familiar bark canoe on smaller streams and when traveling to the territories of other nations.
He said the inspiration for the project came from the 400th anniversary of the 1613 “Two Row” wampum belt that depicted the parallel paths of two boats on the same river.
Emerson said the dugout will be taken to the Smithsonian Institution, where a special wampum exhibit is planned Sept. 21.
Emerson said the wampum exhibit will display a number of original wampum belts, which North American Indians made from quahog shells, strung together and worn decoratively often used as a medium of exchange. He said the history of events is depicted in these wampum shells, making it an important artifact in history.