2001 Florida Folk Heritage Award
By Robert Stone, from Florida Folklife: Traditional Arts in Contemporary Communities.Ed. by Stephen Stuempfle. Miami: Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 1998. Pp. 26, 88.
As recently as 30 years ago, Bobby Henry and his father traveled by canoe during alligator hunting trips into the Everglades. At the time the craft was essential to the Seminole way of life. Like many other Seminole customs, however, hunting in the Everglades from canoes has largely died out, for reasons ranging from conservation laws to changing economic practices. As a result, the ability to fashion dugout canoes is disappearing.
Henry learned this art from his father and from tribal elders. There are two sizes of Seminole canoes: a smaller craft to carry one or two men on hunting trips and a less common, larger boat used by whole families. To make a hunting canoe, Henry finds a tree six to seven feet wide at the trunk and about four feet wide at the top. Using an ax, he cuts around the tree, about five feet above the ground. This “ringing” process causes the tree to die. Eight to twelve months later, when the wood has dried out, he fells the tree.
Once down, the tree is cut to a 15 to 20 foot log and the bark is stripped off. Henry begins to shape the log by burning out the inside. He uses mud or wet clay packs to confine the fire and to keep the wood from getting too hot. After burning as much as possible, he hollows out the rest of the log. An ax is used for chopping and an adzlike tool for the final shaping and smoothing. Throughout this process, he repeatedly floats the canoe to be sure that the chopping is even and the craft sits level in the water.
The finished canoe is approximately 36 inches wide, 15 inches deep and 15 feet long. The sides of a well-made canoe are no more than an inch thick. The bow is pointed to enable it to move efficiently through the marsh and swamp vegetation, while the stern is somewhat rounded. Both bow and stern have flat areas big enough for a person to stand and propel the craft with a 15-foot cypress pole. Pushing on the marsh bottom with a pole is the most efficient way to move a canoe through the shallow “river of grass.” Older Seminoles tell of poling 70 miles from Dania to Big Cypress in a single day.
Within Henry’s lifetime, dugout canoes have gone from being traditional conveyances to symbols of Native American history and identity. Henry has made them for cultural interpretation displays as well as for personal use. Today he fashions miniature canoes for the tourist trade. These items are expertly crafted reminders of a time when dugout canoes were a principal means of transportation for Florida Seminoles.