Northwest Coast Canoes

At the time of the first contact with Europeans, forests of the Pacific Northwest Coast were not well suited for foot travel. Although Native people used forest trails, mostly they moved about by water. Several styles of canoes existed among the tribal groups, each created for a specific purpose. Originally, personal reasons may have accounted for their designs above the water line, but their primary consideration was form and function.

The JayHawk Institute has produced a series of 11 short films that make up the Canoe Legacy Project detailing the Salish canoe culture, the first in the series is below. (You can watch the others here.)

Native people loved their canoes for their beauty and, more importantly, because their lives depended on them. Being a waterborne culture, boats were primary in the quest for sustenance—fishing on the ocean, setting and tending nets, going to shellfish beds and traveling to hunting and gathering areas.

Tsuxs Ne'x

Tsuxs Ne’x : Meaning small Killer Whale, a 20 ft. Northern style canoe carved as a demonstration at the Seattle Science Center in 1985 by Duane Pasco.

Social interaction with other villages and tribes was accomplished by canoes that could carry around thirty people. Canoes sixty or more feet in length were used to transport many people to a potlatch.

Nuuchahnulth whaling canoes were generally thirty-five to forty feet in length, and like the war canoe, needed to be fast and maneuverable. Northern canoes tended to have round bottom hulls, while canoes used by the whalers had flat bottoms.


carving Xanamolitza
Makah canoe drawings

(Clockwise from top) Xanamolitza at Neah Bay. Meaning Flock of Crows in the Lushootseed language, the canoe was carved primarily as a training project for the youth of Suquamish and Port Gamble S’klallam tribes. It is 26 ft. long. Right, Suquamish tribal members work on the inside of Xanamolitza. Left, drawings showing bow profile and cross sections of a Makah style canoe.

Most of the canoes that greeted the first explorers to the northern part of the coast were what became known as Head Canoes. They varied in size. After about 1825 they fell out of favor and the so-called Northern Canoe became the preferred model, some reaching over sixty feet in length. Early drawings by ship’s artists also show the Munka, sometimes referred to as the War Canoe. Its use extended from the far north coast to at least as far south as the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

The Salish Canoe ranged from Nanaimo in British Columbia to Southern Puget Sound. These canoes were usually round bottomed with sizes ranging in length from twelve feet to over thirty feet. Generally, they were low-profiled with little shear at the gunwale and well suited for fast travel on the quiet waters of the lakes and slougths and the many protected bays and inlets of Puget Sound.

Another popular canoe type in the Southern range is one called a Shovelnose, often poled rather than paddled. It functioned well on the shallow bays, streams and lakes.

I’ve had the pleasure of making several canoes of various styles and sizes and have designed and consulted on canoe projects by others. I’m often asked what is my favorite style canoe? The truth is I love them all.

— Duane Pasco