Learning from the Canoe

Reviewed by Misao Dean

In the latter part of the twentieth century, research on canoes and canoeing was mainly carried out by scholars in fields like leisure and sports, with a sprinkling of museum curators. Outliers like The Canoe and Whitewater, by constitutional scholar C. E. S. Franks, or The Legend of John Hornby by Coleridge specialist George Whalley, were shelved alongside how-to manuals and summer camp memoirs, despite their literary and historical riches. Canoe history was to a large extent an arena for popularizers and promoters of a particular vision of the nation that offered canoeing uncritically as a means to mature individuation and a felt and material patriotism, and was dominated by a tone of personal enthusiasm, if not outright sentimentalism.


Thus the grouping of recent critical books on canoes and canoeing by Canadian historians, ecologists, and literary scholars—Bruce Erikson’s Canoe Nation (2013), Jessica Dunkin’s Canoe and Canvas (2019), and my own Inheriting a Canoe Paddle (2013), as well as The Politics of the Canoe, under review here—might seem like a strange blip in scholarly publishing. But this blip was prepared for by the work of scholars like Alan Lawson, Terry Goldie, and Stephen Slemon on the narration of the settler subject, and the underlying contradiction of settler nationalism. Because canoes figure in Canadian narratives of nationhood as well as Indigenous histories and knowledges, they are a fruitful focus for exploring the central anxiety of settler culture, the anxiety caused by the realization that what is ‘‘ours’’ is also potentially, or even always already, ‘‘theirs.’’ The use of the canoe to symbolize the nation takes advantage of the seemingly transparent materiality of the canoe and canoeing practices to disguise these contradictions, and with them the historical constructedness of the nation itself.


Roland Barthes, in his book Mythologies, provides a model for how the investigation of the meanings attributed to common material objects and practices can provide insight into culture. Douglas Coupland invites such investigations into Canadian culture with his Souvenir of Canada project, populated with objects like Ookpiks, table hockey, KD boxes, and stubby beer bottles, all evocative of the version of Canada he grew up with. But rather than simply providing a hit of nostalgia, current canoe scholarship links personal experience to political critique in its emphasis on undercutting naturalized narratives of Canadian “belonging” and insisting on prior and proportionate Indigenous ownership of the narrative and the nation.


The articles collected in The Politics of the Canoe begin where previous books left off, by describing efforts to mobilize the cultural significance of the canoe and the practice of paddling in current practices of decolonization. The introduction begins by describing the haunting stop-motion animation “How to Steal a Canoe” by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, in which a young Nishnaabeg woman, Kwe, rescues an Indigenous canoe from the “canoe jail” of museum shelves and restores it to the water. This discussion sets a tone for the book, of centring Indigenous paddlers and collaborators, and using storytelling, reportage, historical research, and appeals to feeling to engage readers the uses of the canoe in narratives of decolonization.


The first section consists of three articles co-authored by respected Indigenous elders and paddlers who have been central to the mobilization of the canoe in Indigenous resurgence movements. Frank Brown (Heiltsuk) and his co-authors provide a solid anchor for the collection in their account of the central role of the Heiltsuk Nation in the founding of Tribal Canoe Journeys among the canoe nations of the West Coast. The authors of the second article provide a more personal account of the participation of their “canoe family” in Tribal Canoe Journeys and the overall significance of the canoe to the Chinook Nation (which is currently not recognized as a nation by the US government).


The third article, by Tł̨ıchǫ elder John B. Zoe and Jessica Dunkin, is particularly memorable: it recounts the founding of a yearly canoe journey—”Whaèhdǫ ǫ̀ Etǫ K’e (The Trails of Our Ancestors)” (73)—across Tł̨ıchǫ territory and the significance of this journey in treaty negotiation and in the resurgence of traditional culture among young people. Whaèhdǫ ǫ̀ Etǫ K’e emphasizes the links between stories, culture, language, and land in Tł̨ıchǫ culture. The article explains how the resumption of treaty negotiations in the early 1990s inspired Tł̨ıchǫ elders to focus on reacquainting young people with their land and its traditions through canoe travel, and how the canoe program helped build community consensus toward a successful treaty. The article includes photographs of important landmarks, such as Dedats’eetsaa, a split boulder that was traditionally a place where belongings were stored for later retrieval, a fitting metaphor for the recovery of traditional stories associated with specific places on Tł̨ıchǫ land. As Zoe emphasizes in the contributors’ notes, “[t]he stories are really in the landscape, and the pages turn with dips of the paddle” (247).


The second section highlights the building of birchbark canoes. It includes an essay co-written by Chuck Commanda (grandson of the famous canoe builders William and Mary Commanda) on the cultural and political significance of canoe construction in Algonquin communities. Commanda and his co-authors emphasize the teaching of canoe building. “When we use our hands, bodies, minds, and spirits to harvest materials and build a canoe,” they write, “we are connecting the pieces together that represent our relationships with the natural world, the spirits, and other people” (122). An article by anthropologist Jonathan Goldner on trying to find and harvest birchbark for a canoe reiterates the way that canoe building vitally links the builder to culture and politics. Details like the time of year to harvest, the kind of forest setting, and the size of tree link to resource management practices, histories of possession and dispossession, climate change, and the problems of preserving traditional Indigenous knowledge.


Chris Ling Chapman’s article on the use of Tappan Adney’s archive as a source for specifically “Indigenous” knowledge provides useful methodological insight. Adney is perhaps less well known than he might be. An illustrator and writer for Outing magazine at the turn of the century, he became obsessed with recording and learning the Maliseet language. He also built an astonishing collection of scale models of Indigenous watercraft, prepared meticulously in collaboration with Indigenous canoe makers. His work is part of the “salvage” paradigm, created on the assumption that Indigenous Peoples and their cultures would inevitably disappear, and his archive was thus determined by settler priorities. Despite his colonialist assumptions, Adney’s meticulous and respectful record keeping has made his work an important source for Indigenous linguistic researchers and historians, and an ongoing demonstration of the way that archives can exceed their makers’ intentions, and speak with many voices.


The third section of The Politics of the Canoe is the most diverse. Albert Braz’s article on Don Starkell’s epic canoe journey from Winnipeg to Brazil is one of the strongest in the book in both scholarship and readability. His topic, he correctly points out, has been neglected by previous scholars, partly because Starkell resists the nationalist narrative of the canoe, and partly because of his abrasive insistence on framing his canoeing in terms of masculine competition and accomplishment, in contrast to the experiential and phenomenological turn of much canoe literature. Peter Wood’s article on Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan’s New Voyages to North America (1703) argues that the marginal illustrations of canoes on Lahontan’s hand-drawn maps provide important information about his route and the Indigenous Peoples he encountered. Wood argues convincingly that the canoe illustrations identify Lahontan’s “Rivière Longue,” often considered merely fictional, as the Missouri River. Cameron Baldassarra’s article explores the politics of the canoe more directly in the mobilization of whitewater enthusiasts to fight a proposed dam on the Petawawa River, a contemporary local struggle that brought the canoe community together with the town and the local First Nation. Baldassarra’s story also references canoe activism in the “Paddle for the Peace” in 2018 against the Site C Dam in British Columbia, and the “Paddle in Seattle” in 2015 against a Shell oil rig.


Danielle Gendron’s article “Unpacking and Repacking the Canoe” provides an opportunity for reflection at the end of the book. It tells the story of Gendron’s canoe trip with her father along the Trent-Severn Waterway, undertaken as part of her PhD research into her own Métis history. Gendron aspires to understand the roles of canoe travel in the lives of her ancestors, and to explore the representation of Indigenous histories along the waterway. Gendron concludes that she travels a “colonialscape” that shares little with the experience of her ancestors beyond “[t]he way that our bodies move in order to propel the canoe through water” (236).


The Politics of the Canoe is a wonderful collaboration between Indigenous knowledge keepers and academics, and full of interesting, inspiring, and entertaining information. I inhaled it over two days of non-stop reading and took away much that will be useful in my research and my life. The thoughtful conclusion to Jonathan Goldner’s article strikes me as a message that all settlers can stand to hear:


Reconciliation doesn’t just call for massive social and political changes in Indigenous-settler relations; it also calls for creative encounters that can effect change on the micro-political, individual, and local level. The compelling politics of canoe building is that it has always been a site of social gathering where the construction of canoes responds to the projected needs of the not-so-distant future. As such, it has the potential to create a powerful space that draws people from all nations into productive collaborations based on our shared and disparate experiences. (151)

This review “Learning from the Canoe” originally appeared in Poetics and Extraction Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 251 (2022): 177-179.

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