Saturday, February 2, 2013

Paddles, Perspectives, and Pickers

OK, I promised that this blog would be about Native art and I plan on making good on that pledge. This month, I will be at Fort Niagara for a living history weekend. I owe a debt of gratitude to one of the organizers for proposing an actual goal for the event. We will be working on carving 18th c canoe paddles. It is quite common for the long winter months for such work to occur in both forts and in Native villages. 

I have made quite a few paddles in the past for myself and for our display at Ganondagan but it has been at least three years since I made a new one. This caused me to review what I had already compiled on the subject. I opened my files again and began to mentally prepare myself for the project. 

My personal challenge when reproducing a historic object is to combine three forms of evidence. I like to have an image from the time period and region depicting the object in use if possible, a written description of the same, and finally an extant object of equal importance. This is not always possible in every instance but it is my goal none the less. I try and avoid "building motorcycles from oil stains" to borrow a phrase from my favorite T.V. show "American Pickers"...

For the first criteria, I will use excerpts from the Montreal Merchants Records which are housed in the Canadian National Archives. They are an amazing record of the types of commercial transactions which commonly occurred in the late 17th and 18th centuries in Nouvelle France.

[Paid] to Gayentagarouche, Indian, for 200 paddles
7s 6d apiece
vol. 114-1, fol. 111v 

An order of this size is incredible and probably not something that was accomplished all at once. The Native craftsmen was probably on contract, making and delivering as he completed the order perhaps. For my purposes, the fact that on occasion paddles were contracted out to Native makers was the most important bit of information. This opens the door to looking at Native-made paddles as a possible source of shape, style and decorative elements if any. 

note: the Paddle-maker's name might mean"black hickory" or "pulls out the wood" (pers. com. W.Loran) 

Finding Images of paddles in the historic record really is the easiest part of the study. I found dozens of great images of Natives using paddles. The curious part of all the examples is that they are almost always painted. This might be a result of superstition and "sailor lore", a way to personally identify and distinguish a man's personal paddle or perhaps it helps prevent the wood from becoming water-logged over time. My feelings are that it serves all of those purposes. Protective designs or even clan effigies and narratives are found on most examples. I cannot begin to speculate on the painted designs as they must have held deep personal meaning to the owner.

Here are some nice images that show paddles in use and in context from the 18th c.

Unkown Artist, Algonquin Couple,Ville de Montreal
Note the "ball" grip, fully painted style, and flat-ish shape of the blade.

1703, Baron de La Hontan, An Iroquois Bark Canoe
Note the "ball" grip paddle with chevron designs on the blade. The leafe-shaped blade seems to be very common for Native style canoe paddles. It is interesting to see that Native paddlers often are depicted standing this is not simply an artists impression however. There is plenty of evidence for the mode in the written record.

A View near Point Levy opposite Quebec with an Indian Encampment Thomas Davies, 1788
In the foreground we see a Native man standing with his paddle before him. The paddle has a nice painted, leaf-shaped blade.

A View of Three Rivers taken from the Road leading to Pointe du Lac, James Peachey 1784
This scene must have been a common sight along nearly every waterway in the 18th c. A turned over canoe for shelter, a small fire for cooking and warmth as well as to melt the pitch for repairs and the painted paddles close at hand.

A Plan of the Inhabited Part of the Province of Quebec, James Peachey
The most well known Peachey image reveals three excellent examples of Native paddles. A fully painted monochromatic leaf-shaped paddle, and simple bulbed end paddles in the prow and in use.

One of the greatest sources for early canoe and paddle resources is the Codex Canadiensis which is an amazing documentary resource for the colonial period. Father Louis Nicholas illustrated dozens of Native people and labeled each image in French, Anishnabe, and Iroquoian languages. 
image from the Codex Canadiensis by Fr. Louis Nicholas circa 1700

Note the standing paddle stance and decorated paddle.

More decorated paddles as well as four different regional bark canoe styles - note the elm-bark Iroquois canoe second from the top, as well as a skin-covered kayak with its double-bladed paddle at the very top.

A detail from "A Southeast View of Cataraqui, August 1783" by James Peachey
Another ubiquitous image from the St. Laurence valley
Note the female paddlers, the standing paddler, extra paddles and push poles in the stern of the second canoe.
All of the paddles here are painted as well.
I think after that compilation of images we can safely say what paddles of the period might look like. Keep in mind, the paddle colors are vibrant and bold with high contrast being the style of the day. 

Lastly, we should look at a few original paddles to finish off our look at the subject. I have chosen a few museum examples with known dates. This is by no means all of the known paddles mind you. I just don't have the time to make a real comprehensive study. This is simply a quick peek into paddles that I hope will spark some discussion and debate on the subject in the future. I have also seen some really poor examples of "reproduction" paddles lately and I want to help resolve that. Friends don't let friends make crappy paddles.

Cree paddle 1770-1775 associated with George Holt from the Hudson's Bay co.
The Holt paddle is associated with an Inuit bow and arrow set that was given to a Dr. Gifford in 1775. The Gifford material was assumed to be all from the original gift by Holt. George Holt was in SE Hudsons Bay in the 1768-1771 period. This paddle displays many attribute consistent with the early images as well as descriptions of paddles. The long flat handle is not as typical however for the St Laurence paddles but more in relation to more eastern paddle traditions like the W'abenaki known paddles. It does however represent perhaps the oldest N.American paddle collected ethnographically. 

NMAI #23/2290 - Algonquin Paddle 1780-1820 ex Peabody Museum
This paddle has no provenance that I was able to find. It is given a date of 1780-1820 but without a solid collection history that date may be a result of style, shape, and decoration based assessment. It is however, consistent with what we know about NE Native paddles.

The next grouping of paddles comes from an under represented group of objects. Canoe models and canoe model sets begin to appear as part of the "souvenir" market in the late 17th c. Most well known examples come from the well-documented "Convent" art of New France. The best resource to date for such objects is "Trading Identities - The Souvenir in Native North American ARt from the Northeast, 1700-1900" by Ruth Phillips. If you are at all interested in early Native American art this book is a must-have. 

This is a canoe set at Le Musée D'ethnographie de Neuchâtel. It has remained amazingly complete and intact for over 200 years.

One of the male paddlers showing his painted paddle. The handle is non-typical and seems almost modern in it's shape.

This paddle seems more in tune with known bulbous handles paddles of the St. Laurence river valley. As with many known 18th c paddles this one also is fully painted.

There are far more examples of known 18th c paddles than the few that I have shown. I think my purpose here is not to be the final word on the subject but as a stepping off point for more research. There is enough information out there perhaps for a larger research paper and maybe that will fall to me to produce but for right now, I have to select a couple of nice trees for splitting and carving. 

Oneh ki, 



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  2. I tried to subscribe to this blog, but it seems I can't! I can only subscribe to comments on this particular post! Is this what you intended, no subscribers? Or am I missing something?
    Regards, Keith.