With the exception of dogs, Native people in the Great Lakes region had no domesticated animals, so they depended on their own power for transportation.

Walking was the most common way of moving, and personal possessions were limited largely to what the people could carry themselves.

Toboggans and Sleds

For winter transportation, Great Lakes Indians used toboggans. The toboggan was fashioned of two hardwood boards held together by cleats and turned up at the front end. Toboggans were narrow, usually only a foot wide, and ordinarily measured seven to 10 feet in length. They were pulled by means of a strap across the man's chest or by three dogs, which were harnessed in single file in front of the toboggan which allowed the people to navigate through narrow forest paths.

After contact with Euroamericans, Native people adopted the use of sleds for winter transportation. The sled was constructed of two strips of ash bent into a U shape and held to this form by struts. The lower half served as runners and the upper portion was joined by cross pieces, which created a platform. Some sleds had runners as separate pieces. Sleds made it easier to haul firewood and household burdens, and were particularly valuable in the maple sugar camps to transport the heavy buckets of maple sap.


Snowshoes were invented by the North American Indian, originating either among the Woodland Indians or in the Canadian Subarctic area. They were indispensable to men on long winter hunts in deep snow. The most common type of snowshoe consisted of a strip of green ash that had been bent, either over a fire or in hot water, to form a rounded front end. The ends were tied together at the rear. The Menominee called this type "catfish" because of its shape. Ordinarily, two crossbars were added for strength, and open sections were filled in with rawhide thongs, woven hexagonally with a needle made of either wood or bone. A strip of leather across the wearer's instep held the snowshoe on his foot, and another strip was placed loosely around his heel. The Ho-Chunk style of "catfish" snowshoe was characterized by the "handle," the frame strip at the rear that, instead of being bound together all the way to the end, was left unbound about six inches from the end. A second type was similar to these, except for an up-curving front end. A double-pointed variety was made of two ash strips bound together at both ends. Because men used snowshoes mainly for hunting, women’s use of snowshoes was less common, and in some cases, snowshoes for women were made more quickly since they did not have to last through years of rough wear. Women favored a smaller, oval-shaped snowshoe style called the "bear paw" with a basswood-bark netting over a frame of branches.


Dugout canoes and birchbark canoes were used when the waterways were not frozen. Dugouts were shaped and hollowed from logs, making them somewhat heavy. In the Great Lakes region, they were used in situations where they did not have to be carried, such as large lakes. On the other hand, the birchbark canoe was light and very maneuverable. Birchbark canoes were made and used in those areas of the Great Lakes region that supported the growth of the white birch.

The thickness of the bark determined its use. Bark that peeled in the spring was heavier and strong enough to use for canoes. Bark  that peeled in the summer was thinner and considered adequate for mats, containers, and other articles. Ordinarily, small pieces of bark could be removed without injuring the tree, but to obtain the large sheets needed for canoes, the tree was felled. Canoe materials included the bark from the white birch for the covering, and white cedar for the "skeleton": the ribs, gunwales, thwarts, prow pieces, and flooring. Sewing elements were prepared from the roots of the spruce, tamarack, or jack pine. These long, shallow roots were dug out, brought to the camp, soaked in water, and then split and trimmed for sewing.

After the tree had been felled, an incision was made along one side so the bark could be pried off with a pole. At the construction site, the bark was laid on the ground with the white, outer bark side facing up. A canoe form -- a wooden framework shaped like a long oval with pointed ends -- was placed on the bark and weighted down with rocks. The two sides of the bark were shaped and held upwards by posts driven into the ground outside of the bark. Cedar trees were split by maul and wedge, cut to suitable lengths for the various parts of the skeleton, and brought to the construction site for final shaping and trimming. A pair of gunwales were sewn onto the upper sides, and a curved prow piece was sewn into each end. Three or more thwarts were fitted into slots in the inboard side of each gunwale and sewn into place. The sewing was done with the aid of a slightly curved bone awl, and the awl was used to pierce holes in the bark through which the spruce root or jack pine root threads were threaded. The rib pieces were shaped with a crooked knife and soaked in water for a few days. Then they were dipped into hot water to make them flexible, bent in pairs into a U shape, and positioned in the canoe to set. When dry they would hold their new curved shape. The ribs were removed, and thin floor boards were laid like shingles in the bottom of the canoe. The ribs were replaced over the floor boards, the rib ends fitting between the gunwales. The ribs, thwarts, and gunwales were all sewn together with spruce roots. White pine pitch was boiled with charcoal to darken it and was then applied to those places on the exterior that required sealing, such as holes or seams in the bark. The pitch-covered seams were then smoothed with a birchbark torch.

The canoe was propelled with cedar paddles, the paddler kneeling on the floor. Since the weight of the canoe was usually less than 100 pounds, it was easy to portage (carry) between lakes and streams. Native people found birchbark canoes practical for hunting, fishing, collecting wild rice, and in historic times, fur trading. White fur traders also adopted the birchbark canoe as a mode of transportation, and the French voyageurs used birchbark canoes 40 feet long and up to six feet wide to transport trade goods. The Woodland canoe was the prototype of the canoe used today by sportsmen in North America.