Campus News

Bowdoin College Donates Birch Bark Canoe to the Penobscot Nation

Story posted August 04, 2004

Bowdoin College has donated a 150-year-old birch bark canoe to the Penobscot Indian Nation. Research indicates the 19-foot-long canoe was the work of a Penobscot craftsman.

Until recently, the origin of the canoe had been something of a mystery.

For many years, the canoe had hung under the eaves of a storage building on the Bowdoin campus. Apart from the name "Sallie Ann" on its bow, there was nothing to indicate how the canoe had come to be there.

In the 1990s, Bowdoin College facilities staff brought the canoe to the attention of The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, hoping it had some connection to the north. Arctic Museum staff researched the canoe to determine what relationship, if any, it had to the College. When, after a long search, no connection was found, College authorities decided that it would be best to transfer this rare object to an institution where it could be studied and even exhibited.

Over the years, the canoe had become very fragile. It had been stored in an unheated building, and the wood and bark became brittle with age. Finding a new home for the canoe proved difficult, as few museums have the storage facilities to house such large objects.

With the help of staff at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, however, the Arctic Museum staff made contact with renowned birch bark canoe builder Steve Cayard and the Penobscot Nation in Indian Island.

Cayard, of Wellington, Maine, first came to see the canoe in April 2003, when he was on campus to give a talk about his work. He confirmed that the canoe had been made by a Penobscot craftsman and, based on details of its construction, dated it to the 1850s.

Cayard has been working closely with the Penobscot Indian Nation (PIN), teaching courses on traditional canoe construction. He was convinced that the canoe should be saved, and felt that work on the canoe, even as fragile as it is, could be incorporated into ongoing training programs.

In mid-June 2004, Cayard, Patrick Almenas, a PIN Council member and birch bark canoe builder, and James Eric Francis, representing the Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department, drove to Brunswick to pick up the canoe and transport it to its new home.

Staff and student employees of The Arctic Museum, along with facilities staff member Jerry Card operating a forklift, were on hand to assist in the delicate job of moving the fragile canoe from its perch in the eaves of the storage building and into a truck. After carefully securing the canoe in the truck, Cayard, Almenas, and Francis returned to Indian Island, where the canoe will be housed in the Olamon building--the site of ongoing birchbark canoe building activities. The Penobscots will use the canoe as an instructional model for creating similar works of art.

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