Relief – The Smithsonian Folklife Festival delivers

Bahnar log canoe
I called out the Smithsonian Folklife Festival recently and I am pleased to say I was wrong. There was indeed an exhibit on traditional boatbuilding along the Mekong, albeit one boat from one group of people. It was not a total loss, so bravo for not having the big miss I initially suspected.

The exhibit in question featured a group of Bahnar people from West-central Vietnam [Editor’s later addition: strictly speaking, it seems these people do not live on the Mekong]. They were build a traditional log canoe using a decidedly untraditional, for them, poplar log. There is a great write-up in the Washington Post on their story of getting to and being at the festival. Suffice it to say they are a remote people and this was a big voyage into very unfamiliar territory.

Bahnar log canoe

All this aside, it was great to see the builders in action. We saw it halfway done and you could already see the precision they were achieving with axes and adzes. They rotated work among the group and eahc person seemed equally adept. The axe is interesting. I can imagine that the cross-piece gives some measure of balance and control, but heck knows I would make a mess of that poor log in a hurry and they were dead on every time. Note the one guy sighting from the stern.

Bahnar log canoe paddle making

Another member of the team was making a paddle, while yet another sat with a completed one. Note that they don’t put grips on their paddles, but the blade could have walked out of a traditional Maliseet or Ojibwe camp.

Bahnar log canoe paddle, done

Location: Kon Tum, Vietnam

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