Researchers Are Tracing Wabanaki Canoe Routes in New Brunswick

The First Nation routes were ancient “highways” that traversed rivers, creeks and streams

Malacites of the Wanabaki Confederacy standing along the edge of the water at French village, Kingsclear, celebrating Corpus Christi Day, ca 1887. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

For centuries, First Nations people traveled along a network of “highways” along rivers, creeks and streams in New Brunswick, Canada.

Now, as Shane Fowler reports for CBC News, researchers are using software and linguistics to trace these ancient canoe routes. While some of the routes are well-known, others are on the verge of being lost to history.

Fowler's article highlights Chris Shaw, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of New Brunswick, who is specifically researching Wabanaki canoe routes. The people of the Wabanaki Confederacy represent five nations stretching from present-day Maine to Quebec. Using a computer model, Shaw is investigating possible routes their ancestors’ canoes traveled, taking into consideration seasonal water levels and known archaeological sites.

In addition to Shaw’s work, Fowler reports Mallory Moran, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, is studying First Nations’ routes at the University of New Brunswick. But instead of looking at data through computer modeling, Moran is using linguistics to map out the routes. Since many place names in the region are First Nations names, Moran can use them to make a connection to centuries-old routes.

"Many of these routes were part of a seasonal cycle,” Moran tells Fowler. “And we can tell by the names of these routes that they were used for the hunting of specific animals, or to hunt specific fish, and so it gives us an idea of why people were moving."

While some of the ancient canoe highways are still intact and can be traveled today — often as a way to honor and celebrate First Nations heritage — they’re obviously not the primary means of transportation anymore. But studying and rediscovering the routes is a way to reconnect to this rich history.

Mapping canoes routes is just part of this work—last fall, the Associated Press reported that a Maine historical society recovered one of the Wabanaki’s oldest-known birch-bark canoes, dating back to mid-1700s. Only a few of these early birch-bark still exist because the material is so fragile, according to that report.

Meanwhile, artists like Shane Perley-Dutcher, who is Wolastoq from the Tobique Maliseet First Nation, have been creating their own authentic birch bark canoes. One, a 19-foot birch bark canoe made on the bank of the St. John River that incorporated birch bark, cedar, spruce roots and pine resin, is an exact replica of an 1889 canoe built by a Maliseet man named Peter Joe who “introduced the world to the maritime style of canoeing,” according to Emily Baron Cadloff in a 2016 article about the canoe published in the Telegraph Journal.

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