Cancer claims life of renowned Passamaquoddy birch bark canoe maker

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David Moses Bridges, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe renown for making birch bark canoes, hugs another tribal member in this 2005 BDN file photo. Bridges died Friday of cancer at the age of 54.

David Moses Bridges, a Passamaquoddy tribal member widely known for his craftsmanship of birch bark canoes and baskets, passed away Friday at the age of 54.

Bridges died of cancer of the sinus.

Bridges was born in South Portland but spent much of his early years in Sipyaik, the Passamaquoddy community near Eastport, also known as Pleasant Point. In recent years, he lived in Bar Harbor, where he served on the board of the directors of the Abbe Museum.

“David’s contributions and accolades are numerous,” Abbe officials posted Saturday on the museum’s Facebook page. “Internationally known for his art, canoe-building, and activism, David was also known as a loving husband, father, and friend. Our hearts go out to his family and the Sipayik community as they begin to wrap their minds around this loss and fill their hearts with his smile, humor, creativity, and love. Peace be with you.”

Bridges’ great-grandfather, Sylvester Gabriel, was an accomplished Passamaquoddy canoe maker who passed away when Bridges was 10. Bridges inherited Gabriel’s tools and, when he returned to Sipayik in his 30s to learn basket-making from his grandmother, Beatrice Soctomah, he immersed himself in mastering his great-grandfather’s trade.

In an interview last year with Maine Public Broadcasting, Bridges said he studied naval architecture at a boat school in Eastport, and took a class with a self-taught birch bark canoe maker, Steve Cayard. It was during this process, and through his recollections of Gabriel, that he began to understand the connection between the canoe and the forest.

“Where the materials come from, when to gather them, how to gather them with minimal impact, when to peel the tree so the tree doesn’t die,” Bridges told MPBN’s Patty Wight. “There’s just so much to know.”

In Rhythm of the Heart, a documentary film about Bridges made by Mount Desert Island filmmaker Thom Willey, Bridges said that cancer creates both physical and mental suffering for people.

“If this turns out in a bad way with me I hope I can just accept what it is and close this chapter on this planet down with grace and dignity, I hope, without much suffering,” he told Willey. “I don’t want to put people through that.”

“Rhythms of the Heart” Movie Trailer. from Thom Willey on Vimeo.

Bridges was widely recognized during his lifetime for his artistry and craftsmanship.

According to a profile of Bridges last year in the Portland Press Herald, Bridges was named a Traditional Arts Fellow by the Maine Arts Commission, “the state’s highest honor in craft.” Bridges also won first prize for traditional basketmaking at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Arizona in March 2015, PPH staffer Bob Keyes wrote, and was awarded an artist residency by The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, which purchased a birch wigwam made by Bridges for its collection.

Bridges’ craftsmanship, his insights into his heritage and into the creative and spiritual aspects of his work drew the attention of many people who, like Willey, fell compelled to document and preserve his legacy, including part-time MDI resident Martha Stewart.

Some other videos made of Bridges can be seen below.

David Moses Bridges – Canoe Maker from Rogue Films on Vimeo.

Bill Trotter

About Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 15 years, Bill Trotter keeps track of how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coast shape the lives, lifestyles and livelihoods of coastal Maine residents and visitors. A resident of Ellsworth, Bill covers Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, Hancock County, fisheries, marine-related topics and more for the BDN. Follow him on Twitter at @billtrotter.