Great Canoe

Part of Northwest Coast Hall.

The Great Canoe suspended from the ceiling in the Grand Gallery. The Great Canoe was displayed suspended from the ceiling of the Museum’s Grand Gallery from 2006 to 2020.
D. Finnin/© AMNH
Hewn from a single Western red cedar tree in the 19th century, the iconic 63-foot-long Great Canoe is one of the largest dugout canoes in existence.

Beloved by generations of visitors, the Great Canoe will return to view in the restored Northwest Coast Hall, opening in 2021.

Evidence links this extraordinary canoe to both Heiltsuk and Haida Nations of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The approximately 2,200-lb canoe features paintings of the killer whale and raven, and a sculpture of the sea wolf for the figurehead. Natural and supernatural imagery is prominent in Northwest Coast art and mythology, with specific creatures sometimes serving as crests that identify the lineage of the owner. Killer Whale and Raven are especially widespread crests.

For centuries, canoes have been at the center of life on the Northwest Coast, where there is a long history of canoe making, including the development of specialized canoes for whaling, freight, and ceremonies, as well as a history of canoe exchanges between nations.

Canoes are celebrated in songs and names, and design elements of canoes are echoed in other objects, such as feast dishes. The Great Canoe is an example of a ceremonial canoe, with intricate carvings on the interior and paintings on the exterior.

Two people stand near the large dugout canoe and examine the paintings on its side.
Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt, Heiltsuk, community leader) and Haa'yuups (Ron Hamilton, Nuu-cha-nulth artist and cultural historian), project advisor and co-curator, respectively, of the project to restore the Northwest Coast Hall, examine the Great Canoe.  
D. Finnin/© AMNH

Today, canoe culture on the Pacific Northwest coast is exemplified by the annual Tribal Canoe Journeys. In 1985, a newly carved Glwa (Heiltsuk for ocean-going canoe) was paddled approximately 500 nautical miles through British Columbia from Bella Bella to Vancouver. Since 1989, as many as 100 canoes have taken to “the natural highway” for what has become an annual event.

Canoes travel filled with passengers travel across the water.
Canoes arrive in Bella Bella, British Columbia in 2014. The Heiltsuk were the host community for that year’s Tribal Canoe Journey.
© D. Moskowitz

The Great Canoe was acquired for the Museum as part of the Museum’s Bishop-Powell Collection, one of the most significant collections of Pacific Northwest Coast art and artifacts in the world. It arrived in New York in 1883 after a lengthy journey via schooner, steamers, railway, and horse-drawn dray and was first displayed suspended from the ceiling near the balcony that is now the Leonard C. Sanford Hall of North American Birds, above what is today the Hall of African Peoples.

Archival image of the Museum'd bird hall shows the canoe suspended from the ceiling above glass display cases.
The Great Canoe was first displayed suspended from the ceiling in what is now the Leonard C. Sanford Hall of North American Birds. 
© AMNH Library/ Image no. 483

At the turn of the 20th century, it was moved to what is now the Northwest Coast Hall, where it was initially suspended from the ceiling. 

Large crowd of turn-of-the-20th-century visitors stand beneath the newly-suspended Great Canoe.
School children photographed with the Great Canoe in 1907, when it was on view in the original Northwest Coast Hall.
© AMNH Library/Image no. 31691

In 1910, the canoe was moved to the floor of the gallery, with sculpted human figures wearing regalia inserted. That's how the exhibit appeared in the 1940s, when J.D. Salinger was writing the novel Catcher in the Rye, whose narrator Holden Caulfield recalls the canoe from his Museum visits.

From 1960 to early 2020, the Great Canoe was displayed outside the hall in the Grand Gallery, where, in 2006, it was suspended from the ceiling after an extensive restoration.

In January 2020, the Great Canoe was moved to the Northwest Coast Hall in anticipation of the gallery’s reopening in 2021.