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Professor: So we’ve been discussing sixteenth-century Native American life, and today we’re going to focus on Iroquois and Huron peoples. Um, they lived in the northeastern Great Lakes region of North America. Now, uh, back then their lives depended on the natural resources of the forest, especially the birch tree. The birch tree can grow in many different types of soils and is prevalent in that area. Now, um, can anyone here describe a birch tree?
Male student: Umm, they’re tall? And … white? The bark, I mean.
Professor: Yes, the birch tree has white bark. And this tough protective outer layer of the tree, this, this white bark, is waterproof, and this waterproof quality of the bark, oh, it made it useful for making things like cooking containers, um … a-a variety of utensils. And … i-if you peel birch bark in the winter –– eh, we call it the “winter bark” –– um, another layer, a tougher inner layer of the tree adheres to the bark, producing a stronger material … so the “winter bark” was used for larger utensils and containers.
Male student: Umm, I know people make utensils out of wood, but … utensils out of tree bark?
Professor: Well, birch bark is pliable and very easy to bend. The Native Americans would cut the bark and fold it into any shape they needed, then secure it with cords until it dried. They could fold the bark into many shapes.
Female student: So, if they cooked in bowls made of birch bark, wouldn’t that make the food taste funny?
Professor: Oh, that’s one of the great things about birch bark. The taste of the birch tree doesn’t get transferred to the food—so it was perfect for cooking containers. Uh, but the most use of the bark was the canoe. Since the northeast region of North America is, uh, it’s interconnected by many streams and waterways, water transportation by vessels like a canoe was most essential. The paths through the woods were often overgrown, so, so water travel was much faster. And here’s what the Native Americans did … they would peel large sheets of bark from the tree to form lightweight yet sturdy canoes. The bark was stretched over frames made from tree branches, uh, stitched together and sealed with resin—you know that, that sticky liquid that comes out of the tree—and when it dries, it’s watertight. One great thing about these birch bark canoes was, uh, they could carry a large amount of cargo. For example, a canoe weighing about 50 pounds could carry up to 9 people and 250 pounds of cargo.
Female student: Wow! But … how far could they travel that way?
Professor: Well, like I said, the northeastern region is, uh, interconnected by rivers and streams, and, uh, the ocean at the coast. The canoes allowed them to travel over a vast area that-that today would take a few hours to fly over. You see, the Native Americans made canoes of all types, for travel on small streams or on large open ocean waters. For small streams they made narrow, maneuverable boats, while, while larger canoes were needed for the ocean. They could travel throughout the area, only occasionally having to portage, um to, to, carry the canoe over land a short distance, eh, to another nearby stream. And since the canoes were so light … this wasn’t a difficult task. Now, how do you think this affected their lives?
Female student: Well, if they could travel so easily over such a large area, they could trade with people from other areas … which I guess, would … lead them to form alliances?
Professor: Exactly. Having an efficient means of transportation, well, that helped the Iroquois to form a federation, linked by natural waterways, and this federation expanded from, uh, what is now southern Canada all the way south to the Delaware River. And, eh, this efficiency of the birch bark canoe also made an impression on newcomers to the area. French traders in the seventeenth century modeled their … eh, well they adopted the design of the Iroquois birch bark canoes and they found that they could travel great distances—more than 1500 kilometers a month.
Now, besides the bark, Native Americans also used the wood of the birch tree. Eh, the young trees were used as supports for lodgings, with the waterproof bark used as roofing. Um, branches were folded into snowshoes, and the Native American people were all adept at running … running very fast over the snow in these, uh, these birch branch snowshoes, which, if you’ve ever tried walking in snowshoes, you know isn’t easy.