Building bark canoe models with Alexandria Park School

Models are a great way to engage people about a subject and we used them to explore Indigenous watercraft at Alexandria Park Community School on Wednesday 23 May with about ten primary school children. It was mixed group, mostly Indigenous boys, and they were a bundle of energy. Judithe Hall and I went from the museum. Auntie Deb and Thea were there to keep an eye on things. We started quietly with just a strip of coloured paper each and two paper clips.

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David Payne shows the students how to make canoe models from paper

A fold on the centreline and a clip at the first end held it secure. The corners of the other end are then folded in to the middle, then brought together as a fold on the centreline and clipped. After less than 5 minutes we had canoes, in fact more than 10 canoes! We had made miniature paper versions of the derrka or nardan featured in the well-known movie 10 Canoes.   I then showed the group a drawing of the canoe, the geese they hunted using the canoe and then the famous Donald Thomson image from the late 1930s of the 10 canoes in the Arafura Swamp. So we lined up our canoes on two bits of green cardboard and recreated that scene as a little diorama, complete with coloured canoes!

Plasticine was next, and everyone was rolling out mangrove logs in a variety of colours so we could form two kalwa rafts from the Kimberley region. One was made in red, yellow and black Aboriginal colours. Kids raced outside to get twigs to make spears, and things started moving quickly. The rest of the plasticine was rolled together in a vibrant mixture of colours to form a tree trunk, and then passed around as each person hollowed a bit out until we had a dugout formed. Another twig became the mast, and a square of coloured paper became the sail, sticky-taped on.

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Bark canoe models made by the students

Eager to do more, it was time to use natural materials. Small bits of stringy bark were used for the real nawi and soaked overnight to be more pliable. Deft fingers folded and squashed together ends, rubber bands secured them, then little twigs went in to hold the sides apart. String ties made from strips of bark were lashed around the ends to cover the rubber bands and another eight canoes were on the table!

Next- another raft- a walpo from Mornington Island and one boy took charge – arranging the twigs, using rubber bands to hold the ends and cutting paperbark for a seat.

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David shows the students how to build an outrigger model

Time for the big one, a double outrigger form Torres Strait!  I had pre-cut the hulls from cardboard tube and cross beams from dowel. Another boy could see the plan already and started to feed the dowels through the holes in the main hull as they were meant to go. The rest helped tape the outrigger hulls on and put feathers in the back for the decoration they carried. Then we were done!

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The group proudly display their models at the end of the workshop

With a few minutes to go the proud kids posed with their models for photos. They wrote a short sentence or two about the fun they had that morning and then off to lunch.

“Today we made canoes and spears and I thought it was a good experience and my favourite canoe was the outrigger.”

“It was very fun but the most fun of all was when outrigger and we want to make paint..”

“We had fun and made spears and boats. We had fun making them.”

“Today we had to make a canoe and a raft. It was so fun.”

“I love making canoes. The one I liked the most is outrigger. I learnt that aboriginals made different kinds of canoes.”

“I like making canoes out of bark off the tree.”

This joyful collection of models will be on display during the Nawi- exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft conference next week.

David Payne
Curator, Register of Historic Vessels

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Two students proudly display their model bark canoe

Workshop on model watercraft

Flinders University, 29/30 March 2012

I am recently back from coastal Port Noarlunga on the Onkaparinga River south of Adelaide, where I held a two day workshop building models of Australian Indigenous watercraft.

Sponsored by Flinders University and coordinated by lecturer Jennifer McKinnon, I worked with 10 archaeology and maritime archaeology students, exploring the construction of different types of watercraft at scale and using this to discuss the background of the craft, plus the many aspects of indigenous  culture that are expressed through their diverse variety of canoes and rafts.

Participants of model building workshop in backyard

This was a workshop with a few differences; it was outside the classroom in a backyard, it was hands-on, it had fire, there were scones and Arnott’s assorted biscuits,  and there were no handouts or notes to take home.

One the key concepts of  Indigenous  watercraft construction was that the knowledge of their design and construction was handed on by word of mouth and demonstration, so I kept to that process, and the students took home the information in their heads and in their models.

We started sitting in a circle and talking about the background to the craft, the loss of the ‘canoe culture’ that once existed on many waterways, the diversity of craft around the country, and how I had got involved in all of this. Then we went to work using the samples of bark that Keryn Walshe, from South Australian Museum, had been able to source some days beforehand. Each model type began with me demonstrating the construction method then everyone had a go themselves.

Two workshop participants building model bark canoe

The process worked – watching, listening and questioning. The students took in the ideas and quickly produced models, sometimes taking them apart and improving them at a second go.   Throughout the two days we learnt about using materials in sympathy with what they could do, and we learnt about using and adapting what was around us too, seeking plants and parts of them from our backyard and kerbside surroundings to make ties, ropes, caulking and support structure.   We put them over a fire to dry them out and singe off the loose fibres,  used the spikes off Phoenix palm fronds as needles, saved twigs and branches form the fire wood pile to build rafts, all the time  sharing ideas and results.

Seven model bark canoes

As the workshop drew to a close we had five different types represented;   nawi or tied-bark canoes from south-east Australian coast, derrkas from Arnhem Land made famous by 10 Canoes, a walba raft from Mornington island, a rolled bark canoe from Tasmania, and a ‘shopping trolley’ type of towed raft based on an example I had seen in the National Museum of Australia’s collection.  We also had ideas forming for the next time- more model types, maybe larger ones too, and additional materials that could be useful.

Workshop participants with model bark canoes

To wrap up the two days I did a lecture in the city on Friday evening about the Australian Register of Historic Vessels ending with its focus on Indigenous watercraft and the forthcoming Nawi conference. Hope to see you all there!

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels