The Heritage Network

The Heritage Network

Fort Colvile Bicentennial


Shaw Brigman with bark sturgeon-nosed canoes – click on picture to read story

Waterways were the highways of history.  Boats would carry heavy loads such as venison and firewood to villages on the shore.  Visitors from afar also arrived by boat. After Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile was established in 1825, it soon became a hub for both native watercraft and new designs emerging from the fur trade.  In commemorating the establishment of the fort, three major kinds of boats play a role.

Probably the most common historically and now the most modern in design, is the sturgeon nosed canoe.  Originally built using stone tools and skinned with tree bark, the bark sturgeon-nosed canoe was a staple of Salish waterways.  Spokane Tribal member of Sinixt and Shuswap decendency, Shawn Brigman, ( has built bark sturgeon nosed canoes but also designed and built the Salishan Sturgeon Nose canoe method using modern materials for the frame and covering. This is a good example of how old canoe designs have become new again as Shawn helped local tribes revive their culture in the current age. 

Even more widely known, the dugout canoe was another standard when the fort was built.  Dugouts include a wide variety of designs, some using cedar logs, others using pine or fir.  They were used in ocean waters near the coast and bigger water bodies inland.  They changed in construction from being burned and scraped hollow to being carved with iron tools as those became available.  They were also used by a larger number of tribes.  All of these variations make it hard to describe either of these native canoes in a short article.  Shawn cautions us not to make too many assumptions about how things were built or how they were used in years past.  The historic boat revival is very much an evolving art, not just a relic of the past. There is a good article with pictures in the January 2022 issue of the North Columbia Monthly.

When fur traders, David Thompson and Jaco Finlay arrived at Kettle Falls in 1811, they found the mighty Columbia, a river whose exact route had eluded them since they crossed the Rocky Mountains.  It also presented a new dilemma.  They wanted to travel the river to its source bringing pelts to export if possible and tobacco to establish a connection with tribes along the way.  They wanted to build birch bark canoes similar to those they used in the East for the trip.  But no suitable bark was to be found.  So they decided to build lapstrake canoes using split cedar planks.  In less than two weeks they built canoes of this new design that carried them in 12 days down the Columbia to what would become Astoria.  They embarked on the return trip in the same canoes. 

Thompson’s design evolved into the Columbia Boat, the main conveyance up and down the Columbia for men and cargo.  Fort Colvile became the center for constructing these boats.  Much of the work was done under the guidance of French Canadian Pierre Lacourse. Columbia Boats could carry 4000 pounds of cargo and 8 men going up and down the river.  Because of their light weight, they could be carried around the many rapids and waterfalls of the Columbia.  Much is known about these boats and much more is conjecture.  You can explore a great article on these boats from this website: written by Tom Holloway.

We are already into discussions of the spruce watap (thread and cordage used by the Native Americans) used to bind the planks to the frame. Also pine was was sometimes substituted for split cedar and sawn cedar became standard after saw pits were constructed at the fort. Wooden boxes were used for steaming and bending wood. We hope to find modern examples of this style of boat to show you. More information, links, contacts and pictures are welcome.

( New April 2022 from Shawn Brigman) Passing along this new 9 minute video link that I recently produced with Hamilton Studio out of Spokane, WA for last months virtual Environmental Tribal Leadership conference that was held at the MAC Museum. In addition is a video of the tule mat tipi installation workshop recently conducted at the MAC museum. For the rest of spring 2020, my schedule is filled in with another film feature with a regional television network, a podcast with a river based non-profit, and participation in providing an artistic canoe for a movie scheduled to be filmed on either the Kalispel Indian Reservation of the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoes, est. 2013Shawn Brigman, PhD is an enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and descendant of the sE J aC=ckstx (sinixt) and
Tule Mat Tipi Installation WorkshopTime lapse video of the Wednesday, March 16, 2022, 9 am-1pm workshop at the Northwest Museum of Arts \u0026 Culture. Spokane Tribal Member Shawn Brigman (descendent of Sinixt, Kalispel, Shuswap) demonstrated the installation of a tule mat tipi, where participants gained understanding and appreciation for ancestral Plateau architectural heritage …

Shawn Brigman, PhDSalishan Sturgeon Nose Canoes, est. 2013(208) 874-2385

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