WASHINGTON – Patrick Almenas,a Penobscot Indian from Maine,demonstrated the construction of a birch bark canoe as visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian huddled around him Monday.
They came to see the18-foot canoe that took more than 500 hours to complete.
A single piece of light summer birch bark stretched around cedar slats,which formed the ribs. Spruce roots tied the pieces,which were sealed with pine pitch. Pieces of darker winter birch bark with American Indian symbols etched into them decorated the edges.
Almenas and his crew built the boat as part of a Penobscot Indian Nation birch canoe program,which aims to teach the craft to reservation residents in Old Town,Maine. The canoe is on display for a week in the Potomac Atrium of the museum,which will soon celebrate its first anniversary.
The boat is made from materials used for thousands of years. Almenas and others of the Penobscot Nation began a canoe-building revival in 2002. Since then,they have produced several boats.
The canoe he displayed in the museum logged more than 100 miles in its first trip. Seven canoes took part in its maiden voyage,Almenas said.
“This is probably the first time that's happened in 100 years,” he said. “This was the first time the St. John River had seen so many birch bark canoes in the water at the same time.”
Vernon Chimegalrea,a cultural arts program specialist at the museum,said the Penobscot birch canoes are made differently than those of tribes in his native Alaska.
Birch trees in Alaska are small,and bark from several trees must be patched together to make one canoe,he said.
People in Maine are often awestruck when they see Almenas' boat on his truck,he said.
“If I'm in a restaurant,they'll be waiting outside for me to come out,and ask me questions,” Almenas said.
The Penobscot program may begin to sell the canoes,which could bring in as much as $100,000 per boat,he said. Almenas will apply for a grant from the National Park Service to expand the program. It has been difficult to recruit younger Penobscot Indians to the canoe-building program,he said.
Other Northeastern American Indians stopped at the exhibition to admire the work,including Elizabeth Robbins,a 63-year-old Abenaki Indian from Lyndonville,Vt.
Robbins,a bead artisan,recognized the symbols lining the canoe,and said she was glad to see visitors were being educated about American Indian crafts.
“I think it's glorious,” she said.
Many American Indians are in Washington for the National PowWow,to be held Friday through Sunday at the MCI Center. The event will include about 800 American Indians from different tribes in dance and drum competitions.