David Moses Bridges – The Trees Let Me Know

Posted by on Jun 17, 2012 in Articles, Dakota Lakota Journal | 2 comments

David Moses Bridges – The Trees Let Me Know

Editor’s note: This is part 1.of a 2 part series on First People’s Fund 2006 Community Spirit Award recipient David Moses Bridges, master birch bark canoe and basket maker.

The Trees let me know
Passamaquoddy master birch bark canoe and basket maker, David Moses Bridges
2006 First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award Recipient

By Abena Songbird
Journal Staff Writer

RAPID CITY — David Moses Bridges, 44, is a Passamaquoddy master in an ancient ancestral tradition; the art of birch bark canoe building. He grew up on the Sipayik [Pleasant Point] Passamaquoddy Indian Reservation near Eastport Maine – the most easterly point in the United States.
The Passamaquoddy are part of the Wabanaki [people of the Dawnland] nation, a former confederacy of five; four of which are federally recognized Native American tribes: Abenaki, {non-status, state recognized – not federally recognized in the U.S. only in Canada], Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and the Mi’kmaq, are spread across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, the Maritimes and Quebec.

In the blood
Bridges’ maternal great-grandfather, Sylvester Gabriel was born in 1886.
“My great-grandfather, Sylvester Gabriel, was one of the last of the old time makers from the old school,” said Bridges. He was already quite elderly when he knew him. As a young man his great grandfather was a hunter and fishing guide in the state of Maine. He lived with Bridges, his mom and dad, and his sister, when they were young.
Because his mother and father had to work, David’s grandfather was their care-giver.
“This was the days before day care – when the elders took care of the young ‘uns,” he said. ‘He was right there in the house, took care of us kids, made sure we had lunch.” Bridges used to read to him when he was learning how to read.
“One day he just said to me he was a birch bark canoe builder. That just mesmerized me. I was very young– six or seven at the time, and was reading him a book by E.B. White called, “Stuart Little” about a little mouse that had a birch bark canoe.
Bridges said right then and there they decided that was what they were going to do: build a canoe. .Knowing the age gap between them he said his grandfather probably already knew then they’d never get to it.
Gabriel passed away in 1972 when David was 10 years. Though he died before they ever had the opportunity to work on a canoe together, he left his grandson his tools: a crooked knife, draw knife, an awl, and a thirst for following this traditional hand craft. The seed was planted; ever since that day, David Moses Bridges wanted to make birch bark canoes.
“Grandfather told me a lot of the old stories,” said Bridges. “He was my best buddy. We took care of each other. You can learn an awful lot hanging out of the elders.”
Bridges’ grandparents first language was Passamaquoddy, right up to his mother’s generation, with the intervention of parochial schools and Catholic boarding schools – the Sisters of Mercy.
“I was born in 1962 – the first generation in the history of our family – it’s not my first language. I guess then the only way to make it was to try to be white. It was a dark time to be indigenous.”
His grandparents took annual basket selling trips all over New England: to places in Quebec, the Abenaki reserve of Odanak, and Connecticut, and places rich in summer communities such as Bar Harbor, Maine.
His great-great grandfather on his mother’s side, William Neptune was a traditional tribal chief. Bridges had two different hereditary leaders in his family. In 1851 the state mandated tribal elections, but Neptune was always considered the traditional chief.
“All of this is built into me, you know. Listening to my grandma’s stories and my great-grandfather’s stories,” said Bridges, who understands and speaks some Passamaquoddy-Maliseet.
As a boy, he spent summers on the reservation but, after high school, in his 20’s he traveled throughout the U.S. for more than a decade.
“I just wandered around and got that out of my system,” he said.

Birch Bark baskets by David Moses Bridges. Bridges’ baskets, aimed at collectors of Native American art, sell for $350 to $500 for a 4-inch square-bottomed berry basket, $400 to $700 for a basket the size of a coffee can, to as much as $3,500 for a foot-tall, ornately etched cylindrical storage basket. He signs each one “Tepit,” Passamaquoddy-Maliseet for David.

Back to the rez
Called back home to the reservation in 1992, Bridges apprenticed himself to his grandmother, Beatrice Soctomah, [Gabriel’s daughter] a master brown ash and sweetgrass basketmaker. At first she was reluctant to show him how to make the fancy baskets. “Men make birchbark baskets,” she said.
Around this time Bridges got his hands on the book, “Bark Canoes and Skinboats of the North American Indians,” a Smithsonian publication that chronicles canoe building styles and culture.
Studying it lead him to another book, “Uses of Birchbark in the Northeast,” an Abbey Museum publication of the ’40; reading this lead to Bridges’ revelation. He saw his family names in the book: the mark of Chief Neptune and the Neptune family.
His great grandfather was also a main contributor in this work. Gabriel was a hunting and fishing guide, who needed canoes to make a living as a young man.
“Most people who came up to northern Maine and needed a hunting and fishing guide and a canoe – they always sought out a Native individual who knew Maine and had a canoe,” said Bridges. “Even at that time he was sought out for his knowledge of birch bark, canoes and baskets,” he said. He was well versed in woodcraft.”
Growing up in the 1800s in the Passamaquoddy community, as part of the culture, it was quite common Bridges said to know the skill and craft of birch bark canoe making.

Becoming a builder of canoes
Bridges, though wanting to adopt this craft that ran in the family; had no one “in the flesh” still around to teach him. He studied the books but couldn’t read the line plans for boat making so he decided to go to school. At the age of 29 he enrolled in “The Boat School” of Eastport, Maine. There he learned to read three dimensional boat plans on a flat page.
From 1993 – 1995 Bridges, stayed in school for three years, until he was 31; becoming proficient in building western wooden boats. His son was born around that time; so he ran out to get a job. A single dad, he recalled being about the same age as his own son, 11-year-old Tobias Gabriel Francis, when his great-grandfather fascinated him with his tales about fashioning birch-bark canoes
A year into living in mid-coast Maine working in the active boatyards, Bridges met a man, Steve Cayard, a non-Native boat builder.
“He’s a wonderful man, full of knowledge,” he said, adding that they both mentored each other, learned about forest materials and “have been fast friends ever since.”
Apprenticing with Cayard, Bridges devoted all his spare time outside of work researching and gathering traditional boat making materials.
For three years he worked at the “The Boat School” doing the traditional western boat building; Cayard worked there with him.
Eventually he left the boatyard and made the leap, fulltime as a basket maker, and canoe maker with Cayard. They began doing programs together at The Boat School. Bridges would be assistant instructor under Cayard. The school was interested in and supported these traditional boat building classes. Together as a team they taught there for the next three years.
One day a conservation worker from the Smithsonian came by. He said they had an ancient Passamaquoddy canoe that needed to be repaired at the Museum.
After being in Bridges’ and Cayard’s class for a couple of weeks the Smithsonian instructors decided to hire them to come and repair their canoe.

Repairing an ancestral canoe
Bridges studied the canoe, and eventually determined it was built in the 1890’s, and grew very excited. He recognized the etching style immediately as belonging to Tomah Joseph, a Passamaquoddy canoe and basket maker widely respected and revered in Eastern tribal communities for his artistry in design. Here was an opportunity to hand repair an ancient canoe of his ancestor!
“He had an etching style that was unmistakable,” Bridges said. “History on birch bark is all about Tomah Joseph. Their was no mistaking his work.” He said the Smithsonian was thrilled to learn they had a Tomah Joseph canoe, identified by Bridges. Under their combined knowledge, he and Cayard repaired that canoe.
To confirm that it was a true Joseph canoe, they got hold of a canoe book put out by the Rhode Island Haffenreffer Museum called, “History on Birchbark” by Joan A. Lester, all about Tomah Joseph. They compared its contents to the etchings on the canoe they were repairing and saw the common themes he would use: camp scene, hunting scene, creatures from Wabanaki legend. ‘There they were. It was his work, there was no mistaking it. We were really honored.”
The Smithsonian was thrilled to have a genuine Tomah Joseph canoe and a contemporary Passamaquoddy canoe maker who could actually fix it!

Bridges with canoe (hands) Photo courtesy of Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, photographer

“It was an honor to be a part of that project. In 1999 we stabilized that canoe,” said Bridges. Of the many repairs he did to the canoe included: recording the hull forms; the shape of the canoe, took offsets of it, took out and repaired some of the structure of the canoe as it was starting to distort, took out failed lashings and repaired them, stabilized the planking frames.
Bridges said that in the early 1800’s no screws of nails were used in canoe building, only natural materials – paper-birch bark sewed over bentwood frames, cedar gunwales and battens, spruce root for lashings, pine sap or spruce gum for sealing; they later began using rattan chair caning – brown ash strips, like they used in basket making,
It was in 1860’s – 70’s that builders decided to simplify the process, as canoes were their main money-makers, and began using screws and nails, as was the case with the Tomah Joseph canoe
Every canoe Bridges builds however is made 100% traditionally, however. He uses traditional Wabanki hull forms, lashed with spruce root, also uses wooden pegs – no screws, glue or metal fasteners. The 500 hours of construction he might put in to make an 18’ canoe, doesn’t include the gathering time to get the bark, the spruce root – easily a 1400 hour job.

The sap is rising, scouting for bark
Bridges collects his own materials, he scouts all over Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Quebec – “anywhere in the southern fringe of the boreal forest that is close to me, where the trees are abundant,” said Bridges.
Maine, a heavily forested state – these days is suffering the plight of much of New England.
“There is a lot of clear cutting, due to the paper industry,” said Bridges. A microclimate affects the quality of the trees; the steeper the slope, the lower the quality he said.
“There is also a high forest acidity in Maine, high levels of acid in the soil naturally. “If there’s a lot of beech trees, the bark is going to be weak.” He said. At the higher altitudes, in the White Mountains, which Bridges calls the “tailpipe of America” along the rocky coast, trees are dying from the tops down from acid rain. “The trees are always being exposed to this.” He calls these trees “the canary of the coalmine” and though not an air specialist, he ventures they are a clear indicator that something has to change and something needs to be done.
Bridges said the birch, a “pioneer species’ the first to grow, along with spruce; as mature trees – 150 years old – are getting harder to find
He gathers his “winter bark” – the browner bark good for etching on, in April; those strips he uses for baskets and goes scouting for the “canoe trees” that will give him the side paneling for his canoes. Winter bark peels harder than summer bard, which “pops right off, letting itself go,” he said. Bridges cuts just underneath: about 1/8 inch for an entire layer of outer bark, or ½ inch for the inner bark – chestnut brown in color.
It has to be a large, straight tree. He looks for trees about 40 inches around for a 4 foot canoe. Bridges climbs high, 24 feet straight up the tree using rock climbing gear. He brings the bark down straight from the tree using a system of ropes and pulleys so he doesn’t have to fell the tree, which would mean carrying a chainsaw. The bark must be strong, 1/8 inch thick, a foot longer than the 18 or 19 foot canoe he’s building. Bridges carries a climbing kit small enough to fit in his small fanny pack.
“From March to mid June if you take the bark when the sap is rising, you’ll generate a second layer of bark,” said Bridges, always mindful of restoring and preserving the precious birch that gives him his canoes. Then he goes back in early June, and a layer of browner bark, good for his etching style is ready in that second layer.
Bridges uses tools such as a moose bone, split porcupine jaw, beaver tooth, or horseshoe-crab tail, etching designs in bark; a technique called “sgrafitto.”
On his museum quality canoes and baskets Bridges uses traditional Wabanaki “double curve” designs and animal motifs.

Fighting for land preservation and protection
Not finally recognized as a tribe until the Nixon era, in 1972, the Passamaquoddy had a government structure that dated back to the 1600’s. Samuel Champlain found them in 1604 – when the French “discovered” that part of the world.
“We had bounties on our heads from the English going back to 1755,” said Bridges. “All through history we were there, speaking the language, in that same place.”
This recent federal recognition enabled the tribe to get a health center, and freed up federal dollars to help build a school. At that time there was hardly electricity in most peoples homes said Bridges, which he calls the “eastern most ghetto” of the United States. “There’s a strong and beautiful presence to the Passamaquoddy people in Maine now,” he said. “We’re still here.”
Bridges said they just recently had “strong” tribal elections. Rick Doyle, in his mid-50s, was sworn in Sept. 30th, as tribal chairman. He said he is a “good guy” intent on supporting the political issues and struggles they have with land preservation.

Deforestation, environmental toxins – clear-cut
“The paper industry is after all the soft wood trees and birch is a hard wood tree – so those trees are in their way,” said Bridges. He said they also spray for hardwoods – have a “hard wood killer” of some sort. “They want to create a soft wood monoculture because soft wood makes paper – and paper means money to them.”
After a fire or a clearcut you’ll get a lot of birch bark coming up – a pioneer species. “They spray for those, which sucks because along with birch there are a lot of raspberries out there – you can’t eat them,” he said.
They are spraying these trees at the sapling stage, so finding mature trees is growing harder and harder.
“You have to go to places I haven’t hit for over a hundred years. The trees I’m using have to be at least 150 years old.” Canoes, made from one strip of bark – have to be from large straight trees.
He himself has worked fervently with the Maine Basket Alliance for years to preserve the gathering places; the trees and groves where they get all their basket and canoe materials. He has formed an alliance group called: “Nulankeyutmonen Nkihtahkomikumon” Alliance [We take care of the homelands]. They are currently lead plaintiffs in a Federal Case to preserve 100 acres of reservation land – right on the ocean bordering Canada – from the oil and gas industry which are eyeballing it for building a liquid natural gas input terminal.
Squaring off in Bangor Maine court, a federal corridor, on Sept. 21st, Bridges said the companies wanted to bring in a very hazardous, toxic material –liquefied natural gas or LNG, within an 1/8 mile of reservation homes, and schools. As this is a hazardous, toxic material – a huge, heavy industry, his alliance is bringing an “injunctive relief” against the B.I.A. and the Department of the Interior based on tribal trust responsibility. Hoping to see the development halted and re-thought, Bridges said his community is divided over this issue, approved by tribal council, as these companies are offering jobs and lots of money.
Many, Like David, in his community feel the process was rushed. “It was stuffed right down our throats by the developer. The state government is compliant as well,” he said.
Theirs is a small community reserve, only 243 acres total. The 100 acres slated for this development, are part of the old community homeland, which up until the mid-70’s [when they received Federal recognition] bordered their land. It is now part of the reservation – ceremonial, sacred ground. A place called, “Split Rock” where the elders access the beach.
“This is the only public access we have to Passamaquoddy Bay,” said Bridges. “If that’s what the community wants, that’s what they got.” Bridges said the decision was rushed; the tribe approved it in one hour without a reading, it went to the B.I.A. who approved it in one week’s time. No environmental impact studies were done. “No water quality or emissions studies, which it’s their trust responsibility to perform. It definitely alters our little, tiny reserve – the place where we exist.”
“Protecting our homeland is very, very important to me,” he said. “Our land base is just being chipped away on a regular basis.” Bridges said even within his own communities there is a draw to sell land for money – or long-term leases. He said this should always be ‘well thought out” and he’s seeing many transactions that are not.
The tribe approved a lease – a 93 page document, in very complex involved lease in legal language in an hour, without even reading it he said. Then the B.I.A. approved it in a week. Didn’t tell anyone until 30 days later after grievance was up – ‘very shady’. The Vermont Environmental Law School is representing Bridges’ group. Ron Schems is also a representing attorney. “It’s a big issue over here.”

Returning the gift, the strength of family, community
Currently David has been working with other native communities in Maine, sharing his gift of traditional birch bark canoe making. With Caynard he has conducted two canoe building workshops with the Penobscot, one in New Brunswick, Canada at the St. Mary’s Maliseet Reserve, next year he’s putting together a workshop for the
Skootick Band of Passamaquoddy in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada. All his programs are free of charge and open to all native people. “All they really need from anyone is a commitment of time,” said Bridges. “We lure them in with good food.”
This fall he’ll be gathering the materials for next Fall’s workshop. They set right up in the communities with materials provided. Bridges has a lot of the materials pre-prepared.
“Using a crooked knife is something you can’t learn in one day – or two week,” he said. “out of ten people that might help out – one or two usually turn out to be proficient with the crooked knife.” He has them carve up the frames, planking and hand-carving every peg out of maple.
He hopes to keep doing programs with Native communities – “Break even and make it worth his while.” Bridges needs travel expenses – compensate for time gathering materials around Maine. He has apprentices now. His nephew, Nicholas Pottle, 19, helped work on the Wyeth canoe – right out of high school. He goes root digging and gathering with him. He now goes to the University of Maine. He can be distracted but Bridges said he at least has a familiarity with materials and a “baseline of knowledge.” He’s his “main guy right now.” And of course, his son, Tobias.
Bridges takes Tobias, now 11, all the time gathering as well as his students. They spend 5-6 days to gather their materials – a lot of canoe trips and hiking are involved. Much of what they need is far off the beaten path.
“Tobias makes little things and sells them. He’s just starting to get into it now. He was raised in the same community I was – knows his grandmother is a basketmaker – lots of traditional people in our community and he’s a big part of their lives and they’re a big part of his.” Bridges said he loves to see him growing up in this same tradition. “It gave me a lot of strength.”
Tobias’ mom, Jessica Francis, is also Passamaquoddy, Bridges says they are still “great friends” – no issues of animosity. We worked it out as friends.” His son lives with him and spends vacations and some weekends with his mom. He sees her a lot. Bridges said she is a student at University of Maine. She is a beadworker from a long line of traditional people as well.
Raking the roots
Bridges has made Passamaquoddy ocean or river canoes, Maliseet river canoes, or Penobscot river canoe [Wabanaki tribes} all done in the traditional Wabanaki way – no metal fasteners 100% traditional.
They take up to 500 hours of construction, which doesn’t include the gathering of materials –which is a variable said Bridges. The latest 18 foot canoe took 1400 hours of labor.
Such an invaluable work of art as a traditional birch bark canoe, Bridges currently gets over a $1,000 a foot for his canoes.
“Prices are going up because the materials are getting so difficult to find. I am lucky if I can find enough materials to make one a year.” Having a young child to raise, Bridges 18 foot canoes – which take a good part of his year – go for $30,000 – $40,000 dollars.
Right now he is primarily working on baskets. Bridges didn’t make a canoe this summer as he had some basket designs he wanted to focus on. He is getting set up to make a 14 foot canoe over the winter months which he hopes to premier at Santa Fe Indian Market – if accepted. “I’m hoping to meet some of those “high end” collectors who just got to have one. I love what I do.”
When it comes to Bridges parents: father, Earl Bridges, his mother, Hilda Soctomah Lewis [remarried} he says, that having Bridges’ great-grandfather living with them, they understand where all his knowledge of traditional arts comes from.
“I couldn’t have done it without them. They’ve been the biggest supporters I’ve had. They are incredibly proud of me.”
Bridges said he can still sense his great-grandfather Gabriel with him in the making of his canoes – sometimes his hands become his grandfather’s.
“He’s with me all the time when I’m gathering. They [grandparents] give me strength to keep going. They don’t live on top of the earth anymore but they’re with me every day.”
“All my family gives me strength – all my aunts, uncles and cousins. All of them are a reflection of the elders that raised us. They’re always with me.”
Bridges loves sharing the knowledge. “I don’t want to hoard it. I want it to be out there again – part of our cultural identity like it used to be. It’s not my knowledge alone – this is the knowledge of my ancestors. I’m just trying to share that.”
Relatively young to be sharing such a traditional art, Bridges says, “I’m still up there climbing trees.”
“I will show anybody in my nation – share my patterns with them – give them everything I know so our birch bark culture doesn’t die out. It came real close to being completely gone. I want to ensure this never happens again.”
Sharing this knowledge with other Wabanki communities is dear to Bridge’s heart. “It’s something that doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the community.”


  1. Would like to purchase a basket for my husband’s 88th birthday on November 30th! He is enthralled with your gift of creation in these berry bitch bark baskets! Hope to hear from you soon! Emma

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