Great Canoe

Part of Northwest Coast Hall.

An immense canoe with a prow in the form of a wolf hangs from the ceiling of a Museum hall. Denis Finnin/© AMNH

The largest sea-going canoe of its kind remaining in the world, the Great Canoe’s hull is carved from one huge western red cedar tree. The canoe was designed to carry dozens of people and their belongings on the open ocean, propelled by paddles or sails of woven cedar bark. On the Northwest Coast, vessels like this one were frequently traded between Nations and included in marriage dowries.

When canoes changed hands, new owners often added their own design elements. The painting and carving on this 63-foot (19 m) canoe are the work of both Haíłzaqv and Haida artists. A Northern canoe isn’t finished until it has a prow and stern, seats, and perhaps a personalized design. These vessels also have names, although the name of this canoe has been lost.

Click on the + signs below to find out more about design elements of the Great Canoe.

An immense canoe with a prow in the form of a wolf hangs from the ceiling of a Museum hall.

Haida Killer Whale

Side of a large wooden canoe features a painted, abstracted killer whale form.
Craig Chesek/© AMNH

The painting on the side of the canoe depicts a Haida Killer Whale.


The prow of a canoe is carved in the shape of a crouching wolf with its teeth barred.
Craig Chesek/© AMNH

The prow of the canoe features a Wolf, one of four Haíłzaqv crest groups.

Interior Stern Carving

A striking carved face protrudes from a wood surface.
Denis Finnin/© AMNH

Inside the canoe, the stern features a carved face with a textured outline of a body, created by the carver’s adze.

Interior Carved Benches

A carved wooden piece features human figures on either side of a hole.
Denis Finnin/© AMNH

The carved thwarts, or benches, are said to have been designed by Haíłzaqv carver Captain Carpenter (1841–1931). The hole supported a mast.

gḷ̓w̓a - canoe, in Haíłzaqvḷa  
tluu - canoe, in X̱aayda Kil (Haida)

Sails For Traveling 

Archival image showing large wooden canoes with sails.
Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw canoes
Library of Congress

Northwest Coast Nations are shaped by their relationships to the sea. Large canoes like the Great Canoe can travel long distances, propelled by paddles and sails. In earlier times, navigators carried repair kits with drills, spruce root, and tree pitch, for cinching cracks together and plugging holes that could develop while traveling.

Northwest Coast Canoes

A group of people paddle a large wooden canoe near a shoreline. The canoe carved by the Haida artist Iljuwas Bill Reid is named Loo Taas, or Wave Eater, for the Killer Whale design on its bow and stern and because it slices easily through large waves. Loo Taas is seen here in front of the Haida Heritage Centre and Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay in 2009.
Rolf Bettner/Haida Gwaii Museum
In an archival photo, a dozen people paddle a large wooden canoe. A Haíłzaqv canoe crew, including late Chief Hṃ́zit du Wáuyala (front, in yellow), at Qatuwas, the international canoe gathering in Bella Bella, British Columbia, in 1993. Canoe paddlers include Charles Gladstone, Sr., Dwayne Walkus, James Brown, Danny Windsor, Robert Hall, Marshall Windsor, Irving Brodowich, Richie Windsor, and Frank Brown.
Lorena White