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More Than a Boat

Davy Crockett in buckskins could have been striding through the halls at TJ last Wednesday, and not far behind him, Paul Bunyan with a double-bladed axe over his shoulder. But no, it was only Michael Sottosanti, primitive technology expert, and Mike Wilson, horse logger, two of the speakers at our “Canoe Kickoff,” an in-school field trip that introduced our tenth grade Humanities students to the year-long project to build a Native American dugout upon which we have now officially embarked.

The one hundred kids split into three groups and rotated around to three stations: Wilson and Joe Youcha, director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, along with master boat builder Howell Crim, showed tools and techniques for turning the one-ton Tulip poplar log that waits for us at historic Mount Vernon estate into a seaworthy craft.

The students have to make a choice, Youcha said, about which style of dugout we want to make: a pre-Columbian “hog trough”; an African-influenced Pamunkey version with a raised prow for crashing through waves; or, a Western-flavored model with more familiar “knife-point” ends that evolved after contact between the colonial settlers and the woodland Indians.

Station number two featured three interpreters from the Museum of the American Indian, who toted along replicas of indigenous boats as well as materials the kids could touch and smell, like sinew and cedar chips. Sharyl Pahe, a Navaho-Apache, explained the distinctions between three boats: the Bolivian “aymada” (this and other terms in quotes here show my best guess at the spelling), made from bundled reeds tied with prairie grass; the Hawaiin outrigger canoe, constructed with rare Koa wood along with the lighter “willy willy” for flotation; and, last, the Y’Upik Eskimo seal-skin cayak, which can be turned into a dog sled and is individually sized to each hunter (the span from one outstretched arm to the opposite elbow gives the width).

Adrienne Smith, of Cherokee extraction, told how picking a tree for a log is as special as selecting just the right Christmas tree, and described a ceremony where the builder asks permission of a tree to kill it so that he may give life to his own family with the boat it will become.

Renee Gokey, from the eastern Shawnee, taught students an Ojibway greeting, “Boo-joe,” and explained not only how birch bark was harvested for the signature canoe of that region, but the legend that led the tribes to travel to a place where food grows on top of the water (then she told us how the wild rice was actually harvested).

At the third station, primitive tech guru Sottasanti held forth in the appropriate setting of an outdoor classroom recently constructed in the school’s courtyard as a kid’s Eagle Scout project. With experiential educator Austin Birch, Mike amazed us by creating fire four different ways in five minutes, none of which involved a match. “I love to explode the myth that primitive man had a hard time doing this,” Sottasanti explained, as he twirled a stick fast enough to make a coal with a bow drill and by hand. “This one’s even easier,” he said, performing the same feat with a piston-like popper from southeast Asia that was first used thousands of years ago. Minutes later, with a dried milk thistle blossom, some sinew, and a sharp stick, Sottasanti made a blow dart that went through a card board box on Birch’s head, William Tell-style, thirty feet away.

After the event, though we had never left the school, it took a while for students and teachers alike to come back to shore. The boats-eye view of history, technology and culture that we had envisioned came into sharp focus on this special day. We plan to begin roughing out the canoe itself on Columbus Day.

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