Building a Native American Tule Boat and Paddling it Too
By Holly Fuhrer, NBC Naturalist

Newport Bay Conservancy was honored to host Stanley Rodriguez as one of the featured presenters in its World Wetlands Day Symposium on February 2, 2019. A cultural educator and elder of the Kumayaay Native American community in San Diego, Stan led a hands-on workshop entitled "Building a Tule Boat" using the southern California tule plant (pronounced "too-lee"). The workshop was a robust and energetic project requiring team process and cooperation. The result was a seaworthy tule boat that was paddled successfully in the Bay by members of the class.

Reed boats have been used for thousands of years in many countries and cultures around the world. The earliest remains, found in Kuwait, are 7,000 years old, but images are also seen in petroglyphs from caves inhabited 12,000 years ago. The type of reed utilized depended on local availability. Ancient Egyptians used Papyrus reeds. Indigenous peoples in North America often used the tule plant, a relative of papyrus, which once grew prolifically in shallow freshwater wetlands, lakes, and rivers in California. The necessary qualities for viable watercraft were the long, sturdy, flexible stems of the tule that are strong and relatively light weight and have pockets of air that provide buoyancy. Large sea-going vessels were built of reeds using tar as a sealant and are speculated to have been used for intercontinental travel. Stan recounts that his ancestors, who inhabited the San Diego area, once used tule boats to hunt whales. In coastal California, small reed boats resembling canoes and kayaks were wide-spread and often used for fishing and hunting in relatively quiet waters such as the Upper Newport Bay.

Stanley Rodriguez, workshop leader, with the completed tule boat

Stanley Rodriguez is described as a “local hero” and “cultural treasure,” and is recognized in the San Diego area and beyond as a leader and advocate of his native people. As a member of the Santa Ysabel Band of the Iipay Nation, his stated mission is to educate the public, and particularly the young members of his community, to appreciate Native American history and sustain its cultural heritage. He gives generously of his time teaching Kumeyaay language classes, performing native songs and dances, teaching traditional games and tool-making, and demonstrating structure building at public events. He is pursuing a Doctor of Education degree at UC San Diego. He serves in several advising roles and has been featured at a Smithsonian Folk Life Festival.

Workshop participants with Stanley Rodriguez and the nearly completed tule boat

The construction of tule boats was a craft honed by the early residents of southern California who used the tule plant for many practical and decorative purposes including baskets, baby cradles, bow strings, mats, duck decoys, tools, cordage, nets, headdresses, clothing and houses. Tule was a versatile, rich, and valuable resource for early cultures across California. It can be woven very finely to make containers for water or used in more coarse construction such as houses. The tule plant that once thrived in California is unfortunately disappearing due to development, drought, disease and water pollution although significant efforts are being made to restore it by local tribes in collaboration with universities. Some of the native practices and uses of the tule continue today, especially among artisans, educators, and native communities interested in sustaining and proliferating their traditions.
Steps involved in building the Tule Boat

Reed bundles ready for asembly
Step One: The first step in the process of building the tule boat is the harvesting of the reeds. In this case, they were gathered at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California. Typically, native builders would wade into the shallow waters where they grow and use a knife to cut them below the water line, tie them into carefully sized bundles and then dry them for several days, turning them to expose them fully to the sun. Due to rainy weather, Stan's class was held inside the Back Bay Science Center.
Cut ends of two bundles are overlapped
Step Two: To begin construction, three bundles were assembled, each consisting of two bundles placed with their cut ends overlapping to a combined length of 16-18 feet. A reinforcing rod made of willow branches tied end to end was then placed in the middle of each bundle to give it strength.
Willow branches lashed together provide strength Stan demonstrated how the bark of the willow could be stripped from the branch and used as twine to bind the branches together in the needed length. He also showed how the softened dried tule stems could be braided to make the cord necessary to bind the bundles together. In the interest of time, commercial twine and rope were used in the workshop.
Tule stems can be braided to make cord for binding bundles
Willow branches bound with willow bark twine
Step Three: Each of the three bundles was then bound securely at 14-16 inch intervals but not so tightly as to crush the air pockets in the tule needed for buoyancy. The three bundles were each about one foot in diameter in the middle and tapered to narrower ends which would become the bow and stern of the boat. Together they created the flat bottom of the boat.
Stripped Willow bark can be used as twine
Three bundles will become the flat bottom of the boat
Each bundle is bound at 14”-16” intervals
Step Four: The three bundles were then woven together, over and under at 12-14 inch intervals, and pulled tightly to prevent leakage, but carefully to avoid crushing the reeds.
The three bundles are woven together
The left and right sides are constructed and lashed to the bottom
Step Five: Once the bottom of the boat was constructed, two additional long bundles were assembled and bound which would serve as the gunwales (sides). These were then woven and secured in place on top of the two outer bundles of the bottom.
The completed tule boat with uplifted bow and stern
Step Six:  The stems of the bow and stern were then pulled together and bent upward, bound with rope, and secured in an upwardly curved position by a cross string to set the form overnight. The curve would provide the boat with the upward lift needed to help make it navigable in the water with a paddle. The next day the tule boat was ready for launch.
Portia Bryant (left) and Joanne Schwartz (right) take the completed tule boat on its maiden voyage