What is a War Canoe?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A war canoe is a canoe which has been designed for use in war. War canoes can be used in active military engagements, or on ceremonial occasions in which a show of force is desired. Canoes in general are characterized by being narrow, long boats which are traditionally powered with hand paddling, and they have been used by many human societies for thousands of years. The war canoe shares many characteristics with the basic canoe design, with a bit of a military twist which is designed to ensure that it will perform well in naval engagements.

Various Native American groups, particularly in eastern North America, used canoes for both trading and warfare.
Various Native American groups, particularly in eastern North America, used canoes for both trading and warfare.

One of the most notable styles of war canoe is the waka taua, or waka, the war canoe used by the Maori people. These canoes are designed to accommodate vast crowds of up to 70 warriors, and they include ornate carving and ceremonial devices. Numerous very lovely examples of war canoes from Maori culture can be seen on display, and sometimes they are brought out at cultural events in ceremonial processions.

Native Americans also utilized canoes in warfare, ranging from small, lightweight canoes for rapid raids to large, ceremonial canoes amply decorated for conferences and other events. As an attack craft, a canoe is actually quite well designed, because it can be easy to maneuver with a skilled crew, and it can be extremely fast with a lot of paddlers working together to propel the canoe. Native American war canoes are sometimes seen at ceremonial events held by groups with a tradition of canoe building.

The term “war canoe” is also used to refer to a racing event. Not all nations recognize it as a category, with war canoe being most commonly seen in Canada, and sometimes referred to as Canadian canoe. Participants in this event work with large, flat bottomed canoes and a big crew who can achieve very high speeds. People may race in war canoe events, and they may also participate in regattas and other ceremonial occasions, especially if there is a desire to honor native heritage, in which case ceremonial canoes may be used.

Several canoe manufacturers produce war canoes which can be used in competition and other events. It is also possible to build one; plans can be found on the Internet, and in communities with a history of canoe making, a skilled boat builder may be willing to work with an apprentice who is interested in learning. For people interested in preserving traditional heritage, interning can be a very valuable experience.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


War canoe, what a delightfully literal name. I had never heard of one of these until I read this article but I knew what it was the minute I read the headline.

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