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Family returns century-old birchbark canoe to Kahnawà:ke

September 21, 2023

Canoe was in the possession of a Montreal family since the 1920s

A birchbark canoe sitting by a window in an office space.
This 110-year-old birchbark canoe has a new home at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: A birchbark canoe well over 100 years old has a new home in Kanien’kehá:ka territory after spending decades in storage in Quebec and Minnesota.

The 110-year-old canoe was donated to the permanent collection of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal, last week by St. Paul, Minn., resident Walt Gordon. “Everybody was so happy to see the canoe, to see the shape of it, knowing the age of it,” said Lisa Phillips, executive director of the centre.

While it’s currently on display in the middle of the cultural centre’s temporary offices, the canoe will eventually be housed in a new museum.

Groundbreaking is taking place at the end of October on a multi-purpose arts centre which will house the cultural centre and museum, a theatre and a visitors’ centre. “We’ve always spoken about museums and how they have collections, Indigenous collections, that are always being held for us,” said Phillips.

Lisa Phillips standing in front of a birchbark canoe.
Lisa Phillips is the executive director of the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“This is part of the work in bringing these items back to the community and back to our people, back where they belong, back home.”

From Montreal to Minnesota

Not much is known about the canoe.

It was purchased sometime in the late 1910s by a friend of Gordon’s grandfather from a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) man who was paddling along the Richelieu River, which flows from Lake Champlain in New York state to the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. The canoe then ended up in Gordon’s grandfather’s possession a few years later, and was passed down to his father, and then to him.

Walt Gordon wearing the medallion made by Ratsénhaienhs (chief) Harry Rice's daughter Tekahawahkwen Rice.
Walt Gordon grew up in Montreal and now lives in Saint Paul, Minn. Ratsénhaienhs (Chief) Harry Rice gave Gordon a beaded medallion made by his daughter. (Harry Rice/Facebook)

It spent 40 years at a cottage in Lac des Seize Îles, in Quebec’s Laurentians region north of Montreal, then on a wall in their family’s garage before Gordon brought it to Minnesota.  He reached out to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke during the summer about giving the canoe to the community, as it’s the closest Kanien’kehá:ka community to the Richelieu River.

A birchbark canoe.
Not much is known about the canoe, besides that it was purchased from a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) man who was paddling along the Richelieu river during the 1910s. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“When I thought about it, this just feels like the right thing…. This is where it belongs,” said Gordon. “I got really attached to it even though because of its condition I was never actually able to paddle it myself…. But, realistically, this is going to be much more valuable where it is than here with me.”

Invitation to visit new museum

Ratsénhaienhs (council chief) Harry Rice and his son Karontatsi Rice travelled to Saint Paul to retrieve the canoe last weekend.  “I had the opportunity to personally thank him for doing this for the community of Kahnawà:ke,” said Rice. “I think it’s important to show that that was a staple of life back then…. The waterways were our highway.”

Harry Rice standing in front of a canoe.
Harry Rice is a council chief at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Rice gave Gordon a beaded medallion made by his daughter Tekahawahkwen Rice during the exchange, and extended an invitation to visit the community when the new building opens to the public. “It was heartwarming,” said Rice.

“It was really nice to bring a piece of Kahnawà:ke back to Kahnawà:ke. Whether the canoe was built here or made by somebody from Kahnawà:ke, it was owned by a Mohawk man.”


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer, Journalist

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.

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