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The Caddo Dugout Canoe
by Phil Cross
In 1999 I was commissioned by the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History (SNMONH), at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK to carve a replica of an ancient cypress wood canoe that was housed in the Louisiana State Museum at Shreveport, Louisiana. It was an undertaking that took place over some 400 miles from the Texarkana area of Shreveport to the southeast Oklahoma forests to the sandstone hills of western Oklahoma and made for an absorbing adventure in creating an object that was an important part of the past of Caddo people.
 
As I discussed the project in the planning stage with the Museum, I had some doubts as to whether I could accomplish the work since I had never done such wood shaping at such a scale and in following a specific, detailed design. Caddos using canoes in our ancient homelands compared to Caddos existence in our adopted lands in western Oklahoma—where we exist on lands that seem at times to be on the edge of the desert west at times—are a universe apart. Something that came to my mind for some as I analyzed the project and began to outline how I would complete it was that the ancient canoe would have been much too large to navigate in the small creek near our homesite. Also, for some reason I recalled the large red dirt dust storms where sometimes for a full 24 hours winds would whip up fine but thick clouds of the red sandy soils in the area and create banks of dirt along fence rows, and, would deposit small wave-like rows of sand inside the walls of our un-insulated frame house. Nonetheless, after talking to some canoe carvers in Louisiana, and talking to people who shape wood products of larger sizes, I developed a plan that I felt confident in doing and that would be suitable to the SNMONH. Don Wyckoff of the Museum provided overall direction and oversight for the project and Dan Timmons provided direct guidance and help from the Museum's excellent display and maintenance department.
 
The Ancient Canoe

The dugout canoe was employed by Caddo Indians as a primary means of travel in the waterways and bayous in the past. This simple craft would have made possible the movement of people and goods to and from key activity areas along the waterways in a reasonably rapid way. Rafts constructed from wood and cane lashed together also provided movement on the rivers.
 
The details of an ancient Caddo canoe that was found on the bank of the Red River near Shreveport, La. were set out in a report prepared by the Louisiana State Museum at Shreveport:
       “In August 1983, a fisherman, John Paul Hobbs, discovered the carved end of a large cypress canoe protruding from a high bank in Red River.  The property was near Dixie, Louisiana, on the W.H. North estate.  John enlisted the help of the Kelly family - Rose, Kendall and son Kevin, and together they tried to dig the canoe out of the sand.  After several weeks, they had to admit defeat and called regional archaeologist Philip Rivet and Dr. Clarence Webb for assistance.  The team of professionals realized that the current of the river pulled against the canoe as they excavated. So they made the decision to saw the canoe in half, to keep it from breaking up in the current.
 
Conservators from the Smithsonian helped to treat the wood with a preservative and to re-assemble it in place at the museum.  Wood samples tested by the Smithsonian for carbon dating place the date of the cypress tree around 1200 A.D.  It measures 32 ft in length and could probably seat 10-12 men.
 
Most canoes are smaller and easier to maneuver.  The size of this canoe and the location of discovery suggest it might have been a ceremonial vessel.  Dixie, Louisiana is the site of Mounds plantation, a large Caddoan ceremonial complex of the 11-12th centuries. 
 
 
 
 
 
A drawing of the ancient canoe was made by Dr. Webb to illustrate the distinct properties of the craft.
 
Bow (Front) Side and Overhead Views:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Stern (Rear) Side and Overhead Views:
 
 
 
 
 
 
Cross-Section at the Mid-Point and End view (looking aft):
 
 
 
The canoe had a somewhat irregular shaped charred area about  6 inches by 12 inches on a ledge some 12 inches behind the leading edge of the bow. This charred spot could possibly have served as an area for some type of ceremonial practice, such as “smoking”, or blessing, the boat at times.
 
 
 
Photographs of the bow of the boat courtesy David Jeane.
 

Making the Scale Model of the Ancient Canoe
Complete measurements were made of the ancient canoe at Shreveport and drawings were made to help for the proper profiles and features of the reproduction and in searching for a tree adequate for the size of the reproduction. Cypress wood, the material of the original canoe, was stipulated to be the material for the craft.
 
To provide an additional perspective and to provide a comparative look for the original craft, I made an Iso drawing of the canoe:
 
 
A cypress tree found near Broken Bow, Oklahoma, was harvested for the project and transported to Verden, Oklahoma, near my home for the carving.  
 
Because of the limited size of the trees in the search area in southeast Oklahoma, the largest cypress tree that could be harvested allowed only a three-fourths scale model of the original canoe to be made.
 
Hand tools of sledge hammers, wedges, and wood chisels were used to hollow the log. The original plan of hollowing the log with fire was abandoned because of hazards of building the size of fires needed and the location of the carving site. My son-in-law, Halbert “Happy” Pewo, a Comanche Indian from the community of Dirty Shame, Oklahoma, did the bulk of the hard work of the hammer chiseling and wedging wood removal in hollowing the log. Much of the shaping of the log I did with a chain saw, which made the work go quickly. But because of the relatively soft cypress wood, it made for jangled nerves in removing wood in the more sharply defined areas of the canoe where a slip could ruin the effort. We completed the carving in 7 days.
 
 
 
 
 
The Canoe on Display at SNMONH
 
 
 
 
 
Photograph by Yvonne Tsotigh Summerlin of Phil Cross at the canoe on display in SNOMNH.
 
 I collected and attached some 600 river cane stalks to a plywood backing for the overhead display for the canoe. Gabe Serrano of the museum was of immeasurable help in locating and collecting the river cane.