Canoe Building: A Journey From History to the Present

Recently, the Museum sponsored an initiative with Outreach Coordinator Pedro Zepeda aptly called “The Canoe Project.”  Pedro sat down with many community members from all of the reservations and discussed the benefits of bringing the art of canoe building back to life.  Pedro pointed out, in an oral history interview, that as long as there have been Natives and trees, there have been canoes. 

Canoe Launching at Smallwoods Store

              

A canoe and the end of canoe poles
Canoe Polling

  The canoe project turned into action when several tribal members converged on the Okalee Indian Village in Hollywood behind the Hard Rock.  The men were axing away at the cypress log and shaping it perfectly.  The oral history program documented the building of the canoe.  Then, weeks later, the group set off to Chokoloskee to the Smallwoods Store.  At Smallwoods Store the small group participated in canoe polling.  Polling is different than paddling a canoe.  The pole is dropped all the way to the ground and the canoe is pushed.  There is a small paddle at the end of the pole for steering.  Historically, some poles came equipped with a needle at the end to “gig” garfish. 

                Seminole dugout canoes are made from cypress trees.  Cypress trees covered central and south Florida prior to 1940.  In the early 1900s to about 1940, almost every cypress tree in the state was logged out.  Some Seminole canoes were over 30 feet in length and could carry and entire family and all of their possessions.  That is not possible today because the cypress trees are still re-growing from the original logging.  It takes hundreds of years for a cypress tree to reach maturity.  You can read about cypress trees HERE

Canoe building at Okalee Indian Village

                There are several notable Seminoles who built canoes.  Their work is still seen in museums across the state.  One of the most photographed (and skilled) was a Seminole man named Charlie Cypress.  Charlie’s family often stayed at the Seminole Village in Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute located at Silver Springs in the early to mid-1900s.  Charlie Cypress lived to be over 100 years old and built numerous canoes.  Charlie’s work is documented through the many canoes he left behind; however, almost three years ago a document was located in the Albert Devane Collection at the Special Florida Collections at the University of Florida.  In this document, someone had sat down with Charlie and recorded some of his specific methods.  The unnamed author claimed “There have been probably only about five highly skilled Seminole canoe-makers since 1900.” 

Oral History Coordinator Elizabeth Lowman recording the canoe project.
A sketch of Charlie Cypress by Robert West. Found in the Albert Devane Collection at the University of Florida's Special Collections.
Albert Devane Collection. University of Florida Special Collections.

                The author wrote, “Charlie Cypress, a full-blooded Mikasuki Seminole of the Otter Clan, was born in the south Florida wilderness in 1869.  His birthplace was a chickee in a small Seminole village; and his early training completely lacked in any form of the white man’s education.  But in the ways of the wilds young Charlie was a top scholar.  In hunting, fishspearing, and making dugout canoes his training from older members of his tribe was excellent.” 

Listen to several accounts of Silver Springs, Charlie Cypress, and Charlie Cypress’s grandson re-tell a legend taught to him by his grandfather: HERE.

                Canoes became unnecessary with the drainage of the everglades, the paving of roads (especially US 41 or Tamiami Trail), airboats, and the reduction of land that the Seminoles had access to.  Many other tribes across the country are building canoes again and even now racing them at Native festivals.  Click on some of the links below to read about what other tribes are doing:

http://tribaljourneys.wordpress.com/

http://www.nativeland.org/canoe_project.html.

https://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=360045066280&topic=14035

http://www.worldcommunityproductions.org/dugout.html

http://susquehanna-wcha.net/dugout.htm

For more information about oral history, contact me at elizabethlowman@semtribe.com

Elizabeth Lowman

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Author: Elizabeth Lowman

I am the Education and Oral History Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum. I completed my Masters in History at the University of North Florida in 2007 and my BA in History and Political Science at the University of Tampa in 2005. I do my best to assist other Native Oral History Programs around the country and present at National conferences on the topics of native oral history, ethics, methodologies, and archives.

One thought on “Canoe Building: A Journey From History to the Present”

  1. I have heard a lot of stories about Charlie Cypress. I wish that I would have known him.

    Reading the archaeology reports from Lake Newnan near Gainesville, I was surprised at how many canoes were also made from Pine. It was probably because the resource available at the time to build them.

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