March 03rd, 2019
By Dr. Bill Weaver & Kathryn Kujala
We Canadians are known around the world and here at home for many things…maple syrup, the ‘Great White North’, hockey, lacrosse, Tim Hortons, the Maple Leaf, ‘Eh’, and our politeness. Canada is also known for a remarkable form of travel…the bark canoe. It has played a pivotal role in travel and exploration, trade, and warfare throughout that part of Precambrian rock known as the Canadian Shield and in the Great Lakes basin area. Without the canoe, the first Europeans would not have been able to access the interior of the New World, and the Hudson’s Bay Company and the fur trade would not have existed to drive the exploration of the interior. Bill Mason, the great Canadian canoeist, once said that the boreal forest with its thousands of lakes and rivers was created for the canoe. It is considered to be a near perfect vehicle for travel in this rocky backyard of ours. The ‘Jiiman’ (the Anishinaabe word for canoe) is also a prominent symbol in Canadian Rock Art, with many examples of this pictograph (ochre paintings) at Algonquin Park, Agawa Rock, Fairy Point on Missinaibi Lake, Mazinaw Lake, and in petroglyph form (carvings in the rock) found at the at Petroglyph Provincial Park in Peterborough (all within a day’s drive of Muskoka). In the oral tradition of the Anishinaabe, the First peoples of the Great Lakes, the canoe was created by the trickster Nanabush as a gift to human kind. Another tradition is the association of the little rock fairy, the Maymaygwayshiwuk, with both the canoe symbol, red ochre, and the creation of Rock Art sites on prominent rock cliffs alongside the water.
The exact origins and development of the birch bark canoe are lost in the mists of time…and few if any traces of the canoe exist in the Archaeological record. Some point to the similarities between the design of our Canadian canoe and the canoes of the Amur River area of Siberia. George Quimby, in his book ‘Indian Life in the Upper Great Lakes’ wrote that ‘…Indians of the Great Lakes almost certainly had boats of some kind (most likely bark canoes) as early as 7000 BC…’ allowing them access to many offshore copper mining sites on Lake Superior. This has been termed the Old Copper Culture Complex. The fact that the paper birch is the only tree with a circumferential grain and resinous bark allows for the building of a light weight, water resistant, durable canoe from a single easily shaped piece.
The symbol of the canoe in Canadian Rock Art takes many shapes…perhaps the most visible is the image chosen by the Canadian Canoe Museum as its logo…the Pictured Lake pictograph site symbol (Right).
When one considers the entire panel from which this symbol has been drawn, one also sees a serpent, a hand print, a canoe symbol, as well as 2 vertically oriented arcs all highly suggestive of the Maymaygwayshiwuk. If one looks at the incidence of the canoe symbol at Canadian Rock Art sites, it represents somewhere between 5 and 10% of the figurative symbols, although this is highly variable and most likely reflects local Anishinaabe nuances.
So next time you look at your old cedar strip or your light weight Kevlar canoe sitting up on saw horses buried deep in the snow, and you think about that first canoe trip this spring into North Tea Lake, take a moment to reflect on this remarkable vehicle with its long history in the Great Lakes basin and its importance to the opening up of our country. Perhaps most importantly, remember the practical and metaphorical importance of the Jiiman in First Nations culture…the people who gave us this gift. Next time you are canoeing on Rock Lake in Algonquin Park, take an hour to visit the north end pictographs; the drive to Peterborough to visit the ‘Teaching Rocks’ and the Canadian Canoe Museum would make a great rainy-day adventure with your kids; for a weekend, camp at the Sawmill Bay campground at Bon Echo which overlooks the Mazinaw cliffs for some beautiful sunset views of the pictographs. You can canoe directly across the lake at the narrows to visit the Rock Art up close or take the ‘Mugwamp’ tour during the day.
(Presented in part at the European Archaeology Conference in Barcelona, Spain, in September 2018). Together with his partner Kathy, a freelance photographer, they venture by canoe into the vast waters of the Canadian Shield discovering the hidden images left behind. They reside in Katrine, ON with their summer residence on Dog Lake, Missanabie - a part of the Lake Superior - James Bay Canoe Route system.
Slate Islands - July 2017
Opening to an abandoned copper mine shaft