Last spring, six paddlers representing three Haudenosaunee nations—two Mohawks from Akwesasne, two Oneidas and two Onondagas—began a journey along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT). Hickory Edwards, a member of the Onondaga Nation and one of the Northeast’s best-known and most-experienced indigenous paddlers, led the group, beginning in Old Forge. Over the next couple of weeks they paddled on to Swanton, Vermont, following the 740-mile NFCT that runs from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.
Hickory Edwards told me that it was an “awesome” adventure. “I never really canoed through the Adirondacks before,” he said. “We’re used to more just being on the water, but this time we were portaging.”
The Iroquois paddlers’ route has been explored by many others, but what made their trip special was that it continued a tradition that’s thousands of years old. Haudenosaunee and Abenaki people were here, living, hunting and fishing among our mountains long before the Europeans arrived. Hickory told me that his journey was a reminder to everyone along the way. “Our purpose on all our journeys is, as we say in Onondaga, ahsoñ• thoneñ idwe’s. We are still here.”
Hickory had his first canoeing experiences on Onondaga Creek on Onondaga Nation. After the river would flood he’d paddle to the control dam, where there was a tunnel with just enough clearance for a canoe. Remembering this years later, he said, “I thought of this as my rebirth. It was like going through the birth canal. And when I came out on the other side I was reborn a paddler.”
That first time on the water he paddled a mile. The next day it was two miles, then three the next, followed by four. “And I just kept going,” he said. Fourteen years later he figures he’s paddled more than 5,000 miles on canoe trips. On all of them, including the journey along the NFCT, it’s not so much about discovery as rediscovery. After his first long-distance paddle, from Onondaga to the Mohawk River, Hickory said he asked his elders about how they used to travel between lands. There were trails and waters, he was told, “but no one remembered them exactly.” So he took it upon himself to relearn those waterways. “It’s really my goal to bring our people, our lands, our waters together. That’s my life’s work. To bring my people, our language, our songs back to the waters.”
Few things were more useful to our Native cultures of the Northeast than the canoe. According to what I’ve been told by elders among my own Abenaki people, canoes were more important to us than cars and trucks are to present-day Americans. Our people traveled widely and quickly on rivers and lakes—those original superhighways. A canoe, especially one made of birchbark, was light, durable and easy to carry between one waterway and the next.
Those canoes were invariably made of bark from the birch tree. The Abenaki name for birch—maskwamozi, the “blanket tree”—indicates our awareness of its role. In his book Canoe Indians of Down East Maine, William A. Haviland devoted an entire page to the more than 90 traditional uses for birchbark, including covering our lodges and our canoes. Other items, such as pack baskets fashioned from ash splints or woven basswood strips, were designed to be used with the canoe. I still have a pack basket made for me half a century ago by Maurice Dennis/Mdawelasis, of Old Forge. Its base is one-third wider than its top. “That’s so,” Maurice told me, “it’ll sit firm in your canoe and not tip over.”
In a matter of days it is possible to make a canoe with nothing other than a knife. Some years ago an Abenaki canoe-making friend, Aaron York, and two college students hiked into the woods carrying only a few basic tools. They used bark carefully stripped from living trees who would not be greatly harmed by losing their outer blankets, sewn together with spruce roots, then caulked with a mixture of tree resin and charcoal. They paddled their newly made canoe home. (That 12-foot canoe is on display in Ndakinna Education Center, in Greenfield Center.)
Our Abenaki name for canoe is wigwaol. Like many of our words, it tells us a great deal about our culture’s uses for that thing. Wigwaol is related to the word wigwam, which means house. Wigwa means birchbark, the material used for both houses and canoes. Wa means someone and ol means boat. Someone’s bark boat. Like a wigwam, a wigwaol could be a shelter. While traveling it was common practice for people to turn their canoes over and sleep beneath them.
Although few people use birchbark canoes today, the basic design remains the same. As does the feeling of being one with the waters that I always have when paddling a canoe on an Adirondack lake or stream. Unlike motorized watercraft or even rowboats, a canoe glides so silently that you feel like a part of nature. I remember one day on Deer Pond in the former Gooley Club lands near Indian Lake when I watched multiple dramas unfold as I drifted in my 14-foot Old Town canoe. First, a fawn running back and forth in the shallow water as its mother watched patiently. Then, a family of three loons who flew in, one after another. It was so quiet, I could hear the variations in pitch of each bird’s whistling wings as it landed.
The two original nations who made the most use of waterways in the Adirondack region were the Haudenosaunee and the Western Abenaki. Although our cultures and our languages were different, many of our understandings of the natural world and the significance of canoe travel were the same. In pre-Colonial times, there was more trade and peaceful interaction between our nations than there was conflict. The best birchbark canoes were made by Abenaki and other Algonquin nations. They were a desirable trade item for the Haudenosaunee.
A shared canoe-travel tradition among the original northeastern nations had to do with the importance of being a good visitor and letting those whose land you were on know that you were not an enemy, but a friend. Among the Western Abenaki and other Algonquin nations, the practice was that when you approached a village outside of your own territory, you would sing a particular song from your canoe to announce your arrival and ask permission to land. A welcoming song sung from the shore by the local people would grant that permission. Hickory told me that the Mohawks followed the protocol of the Edge of the Woods. He explained that the tradition was, when reaching another village, to build a fire at the edge of the woods. When the smoke rose, the people saw it and then sent somebody down to meet the visitors. “And that’s when we ask permission to come ashore,” he said. “Here is what we say when we canoe to lands outside our confederacy:
We have traveled on this beautiful path many times over the horizon and found your village
We the Haudenosaunee residing under the branches of the great tree of peace
We ask to come ashore to gather our minds together as one in peace and friendship.”
Another Native word that relates to both canoes and the theme of mutual respect is wampum. Wampum derives from the Massachusett word wôbôbi—a white bead or white strings. (The purple and white beads of a wampum belt were originally made from the shells of the quahog clams found in the ocean waters off the coast of New York and New England.) For countless generations, wampum belts have been used as mnemonic devices by both Haudenosaunee and Algonkian people; a means of keeping records and—like treaties—documenting relationships between nations. One such Haudenosaunee wampum belt is Kaswentha, the Two Row Wampum Belt. It consists of two parallel lines of purple beads on a background of white. That belt was made more than four centuries ago to symbolize the relationship between the Mohawk Nation and the Dutch. They were to be like two watercraft—a canoe and a European ship—both going down the same river with neither one getting in the way of the other. Today, the Haudenosaunee people see it as the proper relationship between Native American people and non-native Americans. Neither group will force their laws, language or traditions on the other. Each will peacefully follow their own path.
Hickory Edwards was part of a Two Row Wampum Canoe Journey designed to restate that relationship and agreement between Native and non-native nations. In 2013, the 400th anniversary of the original agreement between the Dutch and the Iroquois, a group of about 100 paddlers arrived in New York City in their canoes. They had paddled 145 miles down the Hudson River to Manhattan, where Onondaga faith keeper Oren Lyons presented a pipe to the Dutch Consul-General. Hickory was in the lead canoe throughout that trip.
The importance of the canoe in northeastern indigenous culture is reflected in our stories. There are countless stories among Haudenosaunee and Algonquin people with a canoe as a central element. Sometimes in these stories the canoe is magical, able to fly through the air. Other times it’s used by non-humans. There’s the story of Turtle, foolishly going to war against the humans in his canoe. Turtle sang a canoe song I was taught 40 years ago at the Six Nations Museum, in Onchiota, by Ray Tenanetorens Fadden—a song that Peter Seeger also learned from Ray. Abenaki elders, such as the late Maurice Dennis/Mdawelasis, told stories about the Manôgemasak, the little people of the rivers and lakes who travel in tiny canoes that can dive beneath the surface like submarines. Our stories say Manôgemasak still might be encountered on certain Adirondack rivers and lakes.
A central tradition of the Haudenosaunee has to do with the formation of their Great League of Peace. About 1,000 years ago the five original Haudenosaunee nations—Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca—were in a state of perpetual warfare. A messenger known as the Peacemaker came to end the fighting. Born among the Wendat (Huron) people on the other side of the great body of water called Skanio-dai-yo, the Beautiful Lake (Ontario), the Peacemaker arrived on the shores of what is now New York State in a magical canoe made of white stone. He traveled from one nation to the next, bringing a message of peace. Later, when that “Great Peace” had been accepted by four of the five nations, the final step was completed when the representatives of the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca—led by the Peacemaker—crossed Onondaga Lake in a great flotilla of canoes and the Onondaga Nation joined them.
Every year Hickory Edwards retraces the Peacemaker’s journey, paddling from Seneca Lake to Cayuga Lake to Onondaga Lake to Oneida Lake to the Mohawk River—all the names of our original confederacy members.
I asked him why these journeys are so important to him.
“I’m Onondaga Turtle Clan,” he told me. “Never went too far in school. I just saw a need and did it the best I can. I want people to know we are still here, still on our lands and using our waters. We’re not going anywhere.”
He said he’s sometimes asked to go to schools and colleges to talk about the importance of these journeys. He was invited to Hawaii by voyagers who do Hokule’a. And when they came to New York he was in one of the canoes that welcomed them in to New York Harbor. He’s been to Washington to meet with the Salish, who also explore their waterways. “It’s really a circle around the world,” said Hickory. “Hawaii, the Salish, our people. All of us are relearning our ways, bringing us back to the water.”
Joseph Bruchac is a Nulhegan Abenaki citizen and respected elder among his people. He is a traditional storyteller and the author of more than 170 books for children and adults, most recently A Peacemaker for Warring Nations (Wisdom Tales Press, 2022), illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden. Learn more about Bruchac’s work at www.josephbruchac.com.