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Indigenous Peoples Day: A Paddling Perspective

For Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21), the NWTRPA is celebrating the ingenious architectural design and use of paddling watercraft of the NWT.



For centuries, the Tłı̨chǫ used hand-crafted birchbark canoes to traverse the thousands of kilometres of waterways between traditional hunting and fishing areas. The Tłı̨chǫ lived in a yearly cycle of following traditional trails in birchbark canoes to the barren lands in the fall to harvest caribou; and then heading below the treeline for the long northern winter until the warmth and life of spring returned.

Birchbark canoe are made of—you guessed it—birchbark stitched together with spruce root and sealed with spruce gum. The gunwales are lashed with spruce root. There were two sizes of canoes: an open cargo or family canoe (5 to 7 metres), called k'ıts'i, and a smaller hunting canoe (3.5 to 5 metres), called k'ıelá. Spruce bark canoes were also built, though rarely.

Source: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

In 1996, six Tłı̨chǫ Elders spent two weeks at Russell Lake building a k'ıelá, in order to celebrate its role in Tłı̨chǫ history and culture. The successful completion of this beautifully constructed craft was not only a jounry into the history of k'ıelá, but also a journey into the lives of Tłı̨chǫ ancestors and their travels along the traditional trails across their land. This project inspired Elders and youth, a proud connection to their traditions and land. The entire construction was documented on video, photographs and words.

While canoe use declined with the arrival of outboard motors and airplanes, the canoe remains an important reminder for Tłı̨chǫ of who we were before colonization. The Whaèhdǫǫ̀ Etǫ K’è/Trails of Our Ancestors program remains an important mechanism for keeping Tłı̨chǫ ancestral trails alive and strengthening Tłı̨chǫ language, culture, and way of life. This book about Whaèhdǫǫ̀ Etǫ K’è shows how the Tłı̨chǫ continue to keep the history of who they are alive by travelling the trails of their ancestors to their annual gatherings each year.

Source: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

John B. Zoe and Jess Dunkin also contributed a chapter to the book, Politics of the Canoe, which is about the canoe in Tłı̨chǫ culture. Entitled “Whaèhdǫǫ̀ Etǫ K’è”, their chapter is structured like a canoe trip, travelling to different places in order to shed light on the historical and contemporary relations of Tłı̨chǫ with the canoe.

Mooseskin Boat

During the fur trade era, the Shúhtaot’ı̨nę (Mountain Dene) built mooseskin boats to travel from their camps in the mountains to trading posts on the Deho/Mackenzie River. The boats are an example of Dene innovation. They blend the forms of the traditional Dene birch and spruce bark canoes, and the shallow, broad, and long York boats used by fur traders. Shúhtaot’ı̨nę began by constructing large frames from spruce, which they covered with untanned hides stitched together with moose sinew. When they arrived at their destination, the boats were dismantled and the materials used for other purposes.

A traditional skin boat on the Deho near Tulı́t’a in the Sahtú, Northwest Territories, 1920s. Source: Northwest Territories Archives/Department of the Interior fonds/G-1989-006: 0022

There have been a handful of mooseskin boat building projects in recent years. In 2013, residents of Tulı́t’a built a mooseskin boat on the shores of Begádeé/Keele River and paddled it back to the community. In 2017, a group of several Shúhtaot’ı̨nę and Dehcho Dene families came together to build and paddle a mooseskin boat down the Na'ha Dehé/Nahanni River; it was the first time in a century that a mooseskin boat had travelled down the iconic river. Watch the film Nahanni: River of Forgiveness to learn more about the resurgence of ancient Dene engineering and paddling skills.

Source: Nahanni: River of Forgiveness Facebook Page.

Watch Raymond Yakelaya’s 1981 documentary about the making of a mooseskin boat. If you’re in Yellowknife, you can see the boat featured in the documentary at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.


The qajaq is the traditional watercraft of the Inuvialuit. A long, slender, and light boat that can transport up to five people (!), the qajaq was an important tool for travel and harvesting. Traditionally, qajait were constructed from driftwood, willow, and skins (usually seal, but occasionally caribou). The stitching together of the skins, but especially caribou skins, which are thinner and more difficult to work with, is very specialized work. To ensure the covering is watertight, the needle can only pass halfway through the skin.

Qajait, like canoes, have different designs that reflect the landscapes in which they are used. Traditional qajait from the area that is now Tuktuuyaqtuuq/Tuktoyaktuk were used for hunting beluga, so they needed to be sleek, lightweight, and fast.

Source: “Pulled from the Brink,” Up Here (April 2016). Illustration by John Allerston, after H. Golden.

Qajait have largely been replaced by motorboats in Inuvialuit communities, but there have been recent efforts to retain the knowledge and skills necessary to build a traditional qajaq. Learn more about the revitalization of qajaq building in Tuktuuyaqtuuq/Tuktoyaktuk in this article from Up Here.

Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP)

If you’ve spent any time in on or around Sǫ̀mba K’è/Yellowknife’s Back Bay in the summer, you’ve probably spotted someone propelling a surfboard-like thing with a long-shafted paddle. Behold the stand up paddle board, or SUP.

Caption: Stand up paddleboarding on Back Bay in Sǫ̀mba K’è / Yellowknife. Source: Benji Straker.

Different versions of stand up paddleboarding have existed across time and space, though the recent craze is usually attributed to two prominent surfers—Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton—who used paddles to propel their longboards during a photoshoot on Maui in the early 2000s.

The popularity of SUPs in Sǫ̀mba K’è/Yellowknife owes something to Old Town Paddle & Co., the most northern SUP outfitter in Canada, but stand up paddleboards are becoming more common across the territory. SUP Jousting was one of a number of fun paddle-related activities on the roster of events at the 2018 Slave River Paddlefest in Tthebacha/Fort Smith.

Though most people use their SUPs for short trips, with a few dry bags and some camping supplies, longer trips are also possible. Paddle Canada launched a stand up paddleboarding training program in 2011. Find out more on their website.

In 2017, a group paddled the Mountain River on their stand up paddle boards. Read all about their adventure in their blog.

Learn the story behind Yellowknife’s Old Town Paddle & Co., the most northern SUP outfitter in Canada, in this video:


This Newspost was originally published on June 11, 2019. Updated: June 2021.


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