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Native American Watercraft

For many Native American tribes, boats were a key part of their survival. For hunting and fishing, they needed good boats so they came up with some truly ingenious designs to accomplish these tasks better.


The kayak is probably the most popular Native American boat. Kayaks are very small boats that are controlled by humans using a paddle. They are different from canoes in that kayaks have a protective deck that covers the top. This was to help keep the water out and allow items to be stored in the boat without the rider having to worry about them being lost. The Inuit tribe, living in the arctic, invented the kayak for hunting and transportation. They used either whale bone or driftwood to construct them and they were typically made to fit only a single person. The term kayak actually refers to many different types of Native American boats. Its design differs from tribe to tribe as people tended to customize the design for their own needs.


Like kayaks, umiaks were used by native Arctic people like the Inuit and Yupik peoples. The name umiak means “women’s boat” whereas kayak means “man’s boat.” The umiak was quite a bit larger than a kayak. While kayaks held only one or two people, umiaks were built to hold somewhere around 20 people. They were made from the same materials of the kayaks such as whale bone or driftwood which was then covered by an animal skin, usually walrus or seal skins. Inuit and Yupik tribes are actually still using umiaks today.

Back Canoes

Canoes are different from kayaks. While they are still small and were human-powered in the beginning, they have no skin covering on the top though it can be added later. The boats were very narrow and propelled with paddles as well. Canoes could be built according to a specific design but many tribes also experimented with their own, resulting in many different design options. For instance, “flat back canoes” are wider canoes with flat bottoms that improved stability on lakes. Modern square stern canoes are now referred to as “square back canoes,” suitable for lake fishing.

Dugout Canoes

A dugout canoe can be considered a bit primitive. Instead of being constructed from bone or trimmed tree parts, tribes typically just cut down a very large tree and hollowed out its trunk! The design is the oldest boat design on the planet as they were built by not only Native Americans but Vikings and other early civilizations as well.

As a result of some generous boat donations, many museums have Native American boats on display. Think about going to see them in person because they are truly ingenious! Many Non-profits that have watercraft programs have put in place car, boat, and yacht, donation programs to help support their educational watercraft programs.

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