Academic journal article The Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture

The Education of a DUGOUT MAKER

Academic journal article The Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture

The Education of a DUGOUT MAKER

Article excerpt

If a Chickasaw of our past in the homelands did not own a dugout canoe, he or she probably knew someone who did, or where to find one. So did most other people of their time. The slender, hefty watercraft, called "dugouts" because of the way they are built, once were as ubiquitous as cars and trucks are today, and have been around for much longer. From the homelands to islands in the Pacific, to wet-lands of India and Africa, to the British Isles, and the network of rivers and streams plied by the amazones of Brazil, dugouts have been there. Remains of ancient ones, often found in sand and water that hid them perhaps for millennia, tell an epic story of use and variation.

Time and technology have hardly brought an end to dugouts. To riverine tribes like the amazones, they persist as conveniences and necessities taken from the land and waters they live among. All they need to make them-trees, a few tools, mud, water, fire, and time-is at hand.

All dugouts are made in the same basic way, with little variation, and that often for the sake of preference or available technology. A tree is selected, felled if it isn't already, and crafted until it fits the use and fashion its maker or makers have in mind. Then, into the water it goes, and the quicker, the better.

In the case of the Chickasaws of the Contact Period and earlier, it seems reasonable to believe they would have built such craft more or less according to methods reported by western Europeans who led the cultural invasion of our shores. Their records hardly give us enough for a manual, however. Jean-Bernard Bossu, a captain of the French Marines who crossed the Atlantic during the mid-eighteenth century into what is now the southeastern United States, took pains to describe and embellish epics of politics and intrigue he claimed to find among the people here. He hardly seemed as interested in technical details of more mundane matters of Southeastern Native life, like boat building. The best he had to offer in his memoir follows:

There are likewise cypresses of such a size, that the Indians make piraguas out of one piece, which can contain sixty men. ... They went to the banks of some rivers, which are very numerous in this vast region, and which by their rapidity tear up by the roots the trees which stand on their banks. They took their dimensions for length and breadth, and accordingly chose such a tree as they wanted; after which they set fire to it, and as the tree burnt on they scraped away the live coals with a flint or an arrow and having sufficiently hollowed it out, they set it afloat. They are very well skilled in conducting these little vessels upon their lakes and rivers.

How a "little vessel" might contain sixty men, Bossu did not explain.

Perhaps a better detailed witness of dugout crafting through European eyes came from Thomas Harriot, who described his visit to an "English plantation in Virginia" during the late sixteenth century. (We took the liberty of modernizing his spellings of certain words):

First they choose some long and thick tree, according to the bigness of the boat ... and make a fire on the ground round about the root thereof, kindling the same by little and little with dry moss of trees and chips of wood that the flames should not mount up too high... When it is almost burnt through and ready to fall, they make a new fire, which they suffer to burn until the tree fall[s] of its own accord. Then burning off the top and boughs of the tree in such wise that the body of the same may retain his just length, they raise it upon poles laid over cross wise upon forked posts ... Then take they of the bark with certain shells ... On the other side they make a fire according to the length of the body of the tree, saving at both ends. That which they think is sufficiently burned they quench and scrape away with the shells, and making a new fire they burn it again, and so they continue, sometimes burning and sometimes scraping, until the boat [has] sufficient bottoms. …

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