During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, particularly along the Great Lakes regions, movement of goods and people occurred in canoes: birch-bark canoes to be more precise. A glimpse into the world of Native Americans, early French, Dutch, and then British traders comes via a video placed by the Museum of Underwater Archeology. As historians, such videos are terrific reminders of the Historical Inquiry Process (questions well posed, sources well scrutinized, and interpretations well constructed).

As I watched this under nine minute video all sorts of “questions well posed” came to mind. Since I consider myself a cultural and economic historian (despite what Marx says, the two are much intertwined), my inquiries followed a path of resources, their allocations, and the meaning such resources infused themselves in the various cultures aforementioned.

For example: Where are birch trees most prolific? Did all Native Americans, where birch trees are abundant, use the bark of birch to make their canoes? Inuit from Lake Huron invented the kayak, but which came first, the kayak or the canoe – and which group borrowed such watertight technology from whom? Was there even contact between Huron and Great Lakes natives? Since the video demonstrates such intensive work, were canoes venerated? Given names? Or prayed for in rites or rituals? If so, how, and by whom? What did such ceremonies look like? How long did they last? Or were canoes even that important? What does the canoe say about the geography of the region – its system of waterways, rivers, streams, ponds, lakes? Does geography dictate the lightness of the birch-bark canoe? How valued were these canoes by European traders? What did Europeans offer and what did Native Americans accept in exchange for a canoe? People used the canoe to transport themselves and their goods, so were there two styles of canoes: one for people, one for goods? Or was there just one design? What transportation system placed the canoe in an obsolete category and when? How long did it take to displace the canoe? Or was the absence of these birch-bark canoes more the result of encroachments by Europeans and the decimation of Native American societies due to war and disease? Thus which came first, transportation revolutions or the demise of native societies? Or did the two occur hand in hand?

Each of these questions begin the Historical Inquiry Process (HIP). As you can see, however, these questions cover a wide range of topics, from rites and ceremonies to geography, cultural contacts and conflicts to trade, and more. You don’t follow up on each and every question, rather you chose which set or category of questions spark your interest. To fully answer all of those questions would take a lifetime, or at least a good chunk of it. For me, I’d like to know when the canoe began to fade from the North American scene and why. Thus, these questions – hopefully well posed – help sparked my future scrutiny path. In other words, my chosen set of questions now beg for answers. But, and this is a “big but” (no pun intended), what separates a good historian from one that is just so-so, is definitely in the scrutiny. Good historians do not satiate themselves when an answer to a well posed question pops up. A sort of self-audit first occurs: Is this answer valid? Who supplied the answer? Can the source be trusted? Why was the answer written so that I may find it? How old is the source? What biases may the source possess? And most important, are there other sources that supply the same answer, or are there competing claims?

Which leads to the last phase of the HIP: your interpretation. After you have analyzed the answers, it’s time for you to come up with your own interpretation of what’s in a canoe. You’ve probably been using a guiding thesis during the scrutiny phase of the HIP, but now is the time to create that killer thesis (see “Thesis Generation” on this blog) and write your first draft.

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