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Students Experience Traditional Birchbark Canoe Techniques

Ken Weeks demonstrated how he builds canoes by hand entirely from natural materials.

On Monday, April 17, students in the Land Foundations I class in the School of Art+Design listened with fascination as Ken Weeks detailed how he crafts birchbark canoes by hand using indigenous techniques.

With great enthusiasm, he explained how he searches the woods of Maine for the perfect tree, climbs it with only straps and bolts, then painstakingly skins the bark in sheets to harvest it for canoe material (the tree is spared). The aroma of boiling pitch nearby, he demonstrates boiling spruce roots and pine pitch for lashings and sealant.

Weeks later presented his work to the campus at large in a talk, Indigenous Technology: Birch Bark Canoes and Incidental Knowledge.

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Learning from the Land

Weeks is one of several guests Lecturer Bradley Pitts invites to class. Acknowledging the former inhabitants of the land where Purchase now stands, he and his students explore land, ancestors, and local wildlife to develop a relationship to place.

Through readings, time in the woods, and handcrafts with wild materials, they consider the campus as a site of past, present, and future interactions between humans, within nature, and human-wild relationships.

“Practicing living traditions, we will work towards a sense of connection with our human and non-human kin,” describes Pitts.

Transformative Experience

Once a scenic artist and designer for the Metropolitan Opera, Weeks spent a life-changing week in Maine learning to build traditional birchbark canoes in 1999. He then sold his NYC Alphabet City apartment and moved to 40 acres in coastal Maine to pursue his passion.

“Trekking the Northern woods, I hand harvest and prepare materials to build these magnificent craft. It is educational, humbling, and inspiring,” says Weeks.

A birchbark canoe made by Ken Weeks. (Photo: Ken Weeks)