Wapato Canoes

There are several types of canoes for the region which served the purposes of the tribes. The most well know is the Chinook canoe or western style canoe of the Columbia River. It is designed to carry many people and travel very fast through large rivers and even the Ocean. they were also thought of as the war canoes for many tribes.

The common river canoe is a flatter canoe which is general use canoe. They are meant for really any river environment and do not travel that deep into the water and so can move well through swampy water and shallow areas. Some were very long, some were shorter depending on the style of the tribe who made them.

James Swan, two canoes and a paddle, Cowlitz canoe here is a river canoe.

Then there is the Image canoes. they are no very well known and few examples exist today. they had carved figures on the prow and stern and were normally owned by chiefs. The name image canoe comes from Lewis and Clark seeing them in 1805.

Image Canoe in Lewis and Clark notes

Most canoes are thought to have been made from cedar. The wood splits well, is soft for carving, very resilient, and is resistant to rot and so it is a preferable wood. Some accounts suggest really any wood would work and many tribal people would just use any suitable driftwood of the right size.

Klamath, Wocus gatherers and their river canoes

If made with cedar they are burned out and then shaped by adzes to the point that the walls of the canoe are the right thickness. Then the canoes will be soaked in water and steamed and spread so that they are broader, broad enough for two people abreast. Boards are placed into the steamed canoes to keep them broad and open. They are then fitted with seats and further shaped and painted. Black on the outside, and red on the inside. The noses and carvings to canoes are added later and can be taken off and refitted with other noses. The Chinook canoes have the “deer nose” meant to break the wind and hold the line of a harpoon when hunting in the water. They were used for hunting whales in the pacific. They are extremely efficient, some believe the most efficient canoes ever built from one log.

Virginia Miller (Cascades), Curtis image

The Chinook-style canoes are well-known and are being restored as a cultural tradition in many tribes in the region today. The annual Canoe Journeys, began in the 1980s, use mainly the western style canoes as their most basic type in different styles.

There is another style which is not well-known nor talked about. A small canoe called the Wapato canoe which may have only existed in areas where there was significant wapato harvests. They are described by Lewis and Clark in 1806.

wapato canoe & dimensions with Image Canoe in Lewis and Clark notes

“On the bank at different places I observed small canoes which the women make use of to gather wappato & roots in the slashes. Those canoes are from 10 to 14 feet long and from 18 to 23 inches wide in the widest part tapering from the center to both ends in this form and about 9 inches deep and so light that a women may with one hand haul them with ease, and they are sufficient to carry a women and some loading. I think 100 of these canoes were piled up and scattered in different directions about in the woods, in the vicinity of this house. The pilot informed me that those canoes were the property of the inhabitants of the Grand Rapids who used them occasionally to gather roots.” (Thwaites. vol 4 237)

Wapato canoe

These canoes were only seen in large numbers in the village of the Ne-er-che-ki-oo tribe of the Shah-ha-la nation on the south bank of the Columbia. This area was called the Columbia Valley by Lewis and Clark and they were impressed by the importance placed on the wapato as a resource for food and trade and noted that many tribes moved to these villages seasonally to harvest the wapato. The root of the wapato could be harvested any time of year but probably best in the fall, and was highly sought after by all tribes in the area.

Neerchekioo village is that noted to have 25 houses, in the fall 1805, but was reduced to one house in the March 1806, the people having moved back upriver in preparation for the spring salmon run at the Cascades.

“The Sagittaria sagittifolia does not grow on this river above the Columbian Valley. These Indians of the rapids frequently visit this valley at every season of the year for the purpose of collecting wappatoe which is abundant and appears never to be out of season at any time of the year.” (223)

Wapato Island was likely the best place to acquire Wapato on the Columbia and Lewis and Clark even noted the methods of collecting the roots using canoes.

“[Wapato Island] 1 mile above the village and encamped on a butifull grassy place, where the natives make a portage of their canoes, and wapato roots to and from a large pond at a short distance. In this pond the natives inform us they collect great quantities of wapato, which the women collect by getting into the water, sometimes to their necks holding by a small canoe and with their feet loosen the wapato or bulb of the root from the bottom from the fibers, and it immediately rises to the top of the water. They collect & throw them into the canoe, those deep roots are the largest and best roots.” (217-218)

Note the prominence of Wapato/Sauvie Island, with many villages grouped there, perhaps for harvesting wapato which was known to grow in the Willamette Slough and in the island wetlands. Lewis and Clark maps, Bieneke Digital collections

Could it be that it was not salmon which attracted large native populations to this place, but wapato instead?

“they had also an abundance of sturgeon and wappatoe; the latter they take in great abundance from the neighboring ponds, which are numerous and extensive in the river bottoms and islands. The wappatoe furnishes the principal article of traffic with these people which they dispose of to the nations below in exchange for beads cloth and various articles. The natives of the sea coast and lower part of the river will dispose of their most valuable articles to obtain this root.” (214-215)

Wapato roots, and their above-water leaves in a restoration landscape. The leaf arrow shape gives them their other name “arrowroot.” They were called Indian Potato by settlers. The map image is Wapato Lake 1851 Gibbs-Starling map, the other large wapato area in the Tualatin Kalapuya lands.

By the 1830s this culture was on its way out of existence, destroyed by malaria the people could not hold all their villages. Their lands were then taken by other tribes and settlers, who changed the environment forever. There are now attempts to study wapato and restore areas in the Portland basin.

David G. Lewis, PhD

One thought on “Wapato Canoes

  1. Before the white man, canoeing in a Chinook must have been great. I have capsized many an aluminum variety, mostly in the Chesapeake area, but the silent gliding, silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain, is universal.

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