High tech in birch bark

by Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (NOV 20/96) - Dogrib history met the information age near Rae this past spring.

A group of people gathered at Russell Lake in June to do something that hasn't been done in 30 years -- build a birch bark canoe.

Such canoes were an integral part of Dogrib life before the arrival of Europeans. They carried people and goods along the rivers between Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake.

"They're marvels of engineering," said Tom Andrews, a sub-arctic anthropologist for the Prince of Wales Centre.

He spoke during the centre's Amazing Sundays series, noting that all modern canoes borrow their technology from aboriginal canoes.

Andrews was among the group at Russell Lake. The two-week project was part of a collaborative effort by the Prince of Wales museum, local Dogrib elders and the Rae Lakes Co-op to explore the traditional Dogrib trails between Great Bear and Great Slave.

For six weeks each of the past four years, Andrews, John B. Zoe of Rae-Edzo, Rae Lakes elder Harry Simpson and others have travelled those routes. During the trip Simpson has acted as a guide, passing along his intimate knowledge of the area.

The canoe project followed the same pattern. Six elders -- Joe and Julie Mackenzie, Paul and Elizabeth Rabesca and Nick and Annie Black -- guided the group through the process.

None of the six elders had built a canoe themselves, but they had witnessed their parents and grandparents building them.

"This generation of elders is the last to see them being built," explained Andrews. "They are the last to have the knowledge of this technology, so it was critical that this be recorded."

In all, the team shot 22 hours over the two weeks it took to build the canoe. Efforts are currently under way to get funding to produce a 30-minute film from the footage.

A group of Dogrib students were also part of the group, complementing the film recording with the same kind of first-hand experience the elders brought to the project.

Following tradition, the canoe was built of materials readily available from the surrounding countryside -- birch bark stitched together with spruce roots and sealed with spruce gum. The craft was made with three handmade tools: an axe, a crooked knife and an awl.

Measuring just under four metres in length, the craft weighs in at a featherweight 12 kilograms.

It will soon be on display at the Chief Jimmy Bruno School in Edzo.