The Most Popular Native American Boats and How They Were Used

The Most Popular Native American Boats and How They Were Used

Boats were a common form of travel for Native Americans, and there were several different types of boats used by Native communities. The style used was largely dependent on the tribe. We’re going to take a closer look at the types of boats used, and their purpose.


Canoes were the most common type of boat used by Native Americans, but this style of boat was also widely used in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

There were numerous canoe styles used by the Native Americans, and tribes could even recognize one another by the profile of the canoe. But there were three general types used by the Native community:


The simplest canoe type is the dugout. Like its name suggests, this boat is made out of hollowed-out wooden logs. Oftentimes, these boats were incredibly simple, with logs being only minimally adapted from their log shape.

Some tribes, especially those in the northwest coast, created more advanced dugout canoes, with intricate wood carvings. These tribes also used special bending techniques that created unique shapes to make the boats quicker.

dugout boat


Plank boats were far less common, and typically only found in the west. These boats were made of cedar wood planks that were “stitched” together. While these boats had a more complex construction, they were very similar to dugout canoes that were more popular with their neighboring tribes.


Bark canoes were common in the Northeast woodlands are and the Great Lakes. These lightweight boats were made of either elm or birch bark and stretched over a wooden frame.

Canoes are still used today, and inspired many modern self-propelled boats. Paddles or sticks were used to propel these boats through the water. If you’ve ever been canoeing, kayaking or even a home water rower, you have a good understanding of how Native Americans would navigate the waters.


Although rarely used, sailboats were used by some Native Americans, mainly by tribes in southern Florida.  The Ais and Calusa used these boats.

Native sailboats were far more common in South America and Mexico.

Sails were often made from plant fibers and reds, and required very little rigging. They weren’t used for tacking, but rather just for wind sailing.

Bull Boats

Sometimes referred to as coracles or round boats, bull boats were often used by tribes in the plains to transport goods down rivers.

Interestingly, these boats had a bowl-shaped frame made of wood. And as you might have guessed, the exterior of the boat was covered in buffalo skin. The furry side faced outward. Some tribes attached the bison’s tail to the hide, and used the tail as a strap to drag the boat up to the shore.

round boat

Because of their round shape, bull boats were difficult to steer and were incredibly slow-moving. But they were easy to build and could carry a lot of weight. Some were able to hold up to half a ton of weight. Its sturdy design made it ideal for the purpose of transporting goods.

Surprisingly, these boats were incredibly light. In fact, they could be carried on your back with ease.

More often than not, Native women built these boats and were the ones responsible for paddling them. Many Native Americans would bring these boats on hunting trips, and ferry their catch home.

Authentic Native American boats are rarely used today, although modern canoes are still popular. Most boats built using Native ways are designed for ceremonial use only.

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