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The Major Reach of Mini Canoes

by John Leroux

A miniature canoe bade of birchbark, porcupine quills, wood and spruce root, with two paddles.
Fig. 1: Miniature Mi’kmaq canoe, c.1880, collection of the author. Birchbark, dyed porcupine quills, wood, and spruce root.

LONG BEFORE EUROPEAN CONTACT, lightweight and maneuverable Mi’kmaq canoes in Atlantic Canada possessed exceptional attributes. Their graceful undulating form is distinguished by a rounded bow and stern, often with raised central gunwales. The traditional materials used were plentiful, yet remarkable and resilient in their qualities: birchbark sheets, sewn together with spruce root, enveloping a wooden strip frame. Wabanaki historian Robert Leavitt wrote, “The beautiful practical and aesthetic details of canoe construction make it clear that the [Wolastoqiyik] and Mi’kmaq strove for excellence in workmanship and took pride in what they made. The canoe-maker displayed his personal mark on each canoe he built, and each maker’s style was well known to his contemporaries.” My family is privileged to have owned a Mi’kmaq canoe that has been passed down generation to generation since the 19th century, but it’s never been out on the water–it’s all of 13 inches long (fig. 1).

The carefully-crafted scale model miniature canoe shares all the design elements and materials of its full-sized prototype, right down to the birchbark hull stitched with spruce root. For good measure, it includes a pair of carved wood paddles with pointed blades. From end to end below the model’s gunwales are symmetrical chevron patterns in porcupine quills, typical of 19th-century Wabanaki birchbark containers decorated with geometric motifs. In the canoe’s case, eight-point stars punctuate the angled runs of quills; some white, some naturally dyed in a reddish-orange hue.

Image of a miniature canoe with two figures sitting inside.
Fig. 2: Miniature Mi’kmaq birchbark canoe with dolls, c.1860, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ralph T. Coe Collection, Gift of Ralph T. Coe Foundation for the Arts.

This treasured miniature canoe that survived countless clumsy young hands and less than ideal temperature fluctuations at our family’s ancestral home in Bouctouche, New Brunswick was almost certainly made by a member of the Indigenous community a few kilometres west of town along the Bouctouche River. Hundreds of years ago, the brackish saltwater bay in coastal Kent County brimmed with birchbark canoes for travel and trade but also for harvesting the waters’ bountiful crustaceans, fish, and mollusks. My Scottish-Irish ancestors, the Douglass family, have lived here since the 1840s and maintained a tradition of caring for their material history and heirlooms such as the miniature canoe. Family lore maintains that it was bought from Mi’kmaq artisans who made baskets and handcrafted goods during the winter and sold them door-to-door to locals and tourists during the warmer months. This rings true as we also have several ash splint “fancy baskets.” Sunlight and more than a century of time have faded the natural dyes; that is, until you open the lids and see the vibrant blues, pinks, and yellows that are still bright within the vessels’ shielded interiors.

An image of a miniature canoe with two dolls.
Fig. 3: Miniature Mi’kmaq birchbark canoe with dolls, presented to Prince Albert Edward (future King Edward VII) in the Maritime Provinces, 1860. Collection of the Royal Collection Trust, London, UK.
Photo of a Mi'kmaq individual holding a wooden doll, surrounded by handmade baskets.
Fig. 4: Studio photograph of a Mi’kmaq individual holding a wooden doll surrounded by handmade baskets and a birchbark model canoe, c.1885. Public Archives and Records Office of PEI, Acc3109/225.

The production of large birchbark canoes by New Brunswick’s Indigenous makers was once commonplace, although industrial canoe production and cultural erasure incited by white society saw the traditional practice all but disappear by the early 20th century. When birchbark canoe making was in full swing in the 19th century, the skilled builders and other community members also created miniature model canoes and varied objects from their material culture for the tourist or curio trade, along with decorative household items tailored to non-Indigenous tastes and lifestyle, such as baskets, log carriers, and decorated chairs. The practice speaks to design talent and the continuation of longstanding material craftsmanship, but it also signals the economic and social marginalization the Wabanaki peoples faced. Indigenous groups in Atlantic Canada were among the first in North America to experience colonization and substantial losses of their hunting and fishing territories. Consequentially, they were among the first to rely on making decorative, non-essential items for economic survival.

Beyond the local market, British soldiers stationed here in the 18th and 19th centuries purchased these miniature canoes and other similar items towards the end of their tour of service in Canada. While long considered a somewhat frivolous and less “authentic” art form that is more commodity than craft, Carleton University Professor Emeritus Ruth B. Phillips disagrees. In her book Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900, Phillips notes that dismissing the miniatures misses much of the objects’ deeper meaning and the intimate practice of making them. The production of miniature canoes evoked a sense of pride and a strong desire to pass down knowledge of familiar forms and working methods, essentially markers of cultural survival. Phillips feels that the immense popularity and hybridity of Indigenous souvenir art throughout the past few centuries, such as the miniature birchbark canoes, encouraged an understanding of cultural worth between the Indigenous and colonizing cultures.

The breadth and number of miniature Mi’kmaq canoes in major international museums and collections is astonishing and speaks to their sizeable cultural value. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a late-19th-century 22-inch-long Mi’kmaq canoe in its collection (fig. 2), although it is less elegantly executed than the Bouctouche example. The UK’s Royal Collection (under the present ownership of King Charles III) possesses an 1860 Mi’kmaq model birchbark canoe with beautiful chevron quillwork, a single wooden paddle and long fish spear, along with a pair of dolls dressed in formal traditional dress of the era (fig. 3). This canoe, with its outstanding polychrome quillwork design, was presented to Prince of Wales Albert Edward (the future King Edward VII) when he visited the Maritime Provinces in 1860. Other similar miniature Mi’kmaq canoes are in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York/Washington, DC; the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna, Austria; the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, France; and the faithful replica models made in the 1920s and 1930s by New Brunswicker Edwin Tappan Adney, now at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. The Public Archives of Prince Edward Island has a notable c. 1885 studio portrait depicting a Mi’kmaq individual seated on a rug, holding a wooden doll, and surrounded by handmade baskets and a birchbark canoe model (fig. 4).

Book cover of a book called Bouctouche of the Past. The image features a red ground with a photo of a miniature canoe and two paddles with other artefacts overlaid.
Fig. 5: Bouctouche of the Past, 1984. The cover features the Douglass family’s miniature canoe along with other local Mi’kmaq items and archaeological artefacts.

During New Brunswick’s bicentennial year of 1984, the town of Bouctouche published a popular history book, Bouctouche of the Past. The cover features our family’s miniature canoe along with other local Mi’kmaq items and archaeological artefacts atop an archival map of the region (fig. 5). The survival and appreciation of this marvellous object far outweighs its diminutive scale, and hopefully the recent reappraisal of similar Indigenous artworks and crafted items will lead to further cultural understanding and reconciliation.

Dr. John Leroux has practiced in the fields of art history, architecture, visual art, curation, and education, and is currently the Manager of Collections and Exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Ornamentum magazine. To purchase the issue or subscribe, head to our store.


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