Troubled Legacies: The Map and the Canoe

Reviewed by Marlene Goldman

Misao Dean’s and Mishuana Goeman’s books aim to instigate a reconsideration of space and place in the settler-invader societies established in North America. Goeman speaks frankly from her subject position both as a Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and as “a Seneca woman from a family that moved and migrated around the East Coast,” the daughter of a white mother in a Nation in which women largely govern the land. Goeman’s family moved and migrated around the East coast, travelling by car to Tonawanda or, more often, to northern rural Maine, to a place called Twelve Corners—“the most vivid place of my childhood memories.” Furnished with this intimate, local knowledge about what it meant to grow up in “rural, predominately white, poverty-stricken Maine,” Goeman’s study offers an account of the larger colonial praxis of mapping North America, beginning with the signing of the 1870s Medicine Treaties and the corralling of Native peoples onto reservations. The antithesis of a dispassionate historian, Goeman aims to unsettle colonial maps. To achieve this goal, she relies on Native women’s writing to critically read her own tradition. Drawing on texts by Pauline Johnson, Esther Berlin, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Heid Erdrich, and contextualizing their writing in light of U.S. and Canadian law, Goeman illustrates how Native women’s writing simultaneously exposes the constructed nature of nation states’ maps and re-installs the marginalized perspective of Native peoples. At the bottom, Goeman challenges the pervasive myth of the disappearing Indian by demonstrating that both the peoples and geographies foundational to Native communities have not disappeared but “are waiting to be (re)mapped and ’grasped.’”

Professor of English at the University of Victoria, Misao Dean, begins her book with an equally forthright introduction that likewise attests to the personal significance of her historically and theoretically informed research. As Dean explains, she embarked on her project to analyze how the canoe came to become a an icon in the Canadian national imaginary in 2000 when her father died following his year-long battle with colon cancer. Dean confesses that of all the objects he bequeathed to her, her father’s canoe paddle was the one that held the most meaning. For Dean, as for many Canadians, the paddle’s and, by extension, the canoe’s significance lies in the capacity to evoke personal, familial, and cultural memories. By turns elegiac, comic, and polemical, Dean’s book explores how the personal and the political are imbricated in the image of the canoe. As the introduction attests, Dean’s study is fundamentally a narrative about loss—“the loss of childhood, family, stability, but also a loss of fixed political identity that I think is common to many other Canadians of my generation.” Dean traces the loss of Anglo-Canadians fixed political identity by skillfully reading both literary and historical documents from the late nineteenth century to the present, ranging from the poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott to the short stories of Margaret Atwood.

Throughout the book, Dean’s gifts as a storyteller enables her to animate the people, events, and institutions—including the 1967 Canadian Centennial Canoe Pageant and the founding of the Canoe Museum in Ottawa—that helped to transform the canoe into what it is today, the pre-eminent icon of Canadian nationalism. Early chapters explore the largely successful efforts on the part of historians and politicos to promulgate the fiction of “the innocence of Anglo-Canadian society”—a fiction predicated on maintaining that the fur trade “depended on keeping First Nations on the land and preserving their traditional hunting way of life.” As Dean argues, this foundational fiction, increasingly promoted after World War II, enhanced the subsequent nationalist fetishizing of the canoe by famous Canadian canoeing enthusiasts and environmentalists such as Eric Morse and Bill Mason. These men attempted to demonstrate “how canoeists, by virtue of their canoeing, are not European anymore, but something new, Canadian.” Ultimately, Dean’s study ends where Goeman’s begins. The final chapter documents Native peoples’ efforts in BC to reappropriate the canoe and to use it as a strategy for decolonization. In her conclusion, Dean counsels readers to use her strategy in an effort to become more aware of their inheritance: “Find out about the specific piece of land you stand on: how it became part of Canada and what became of the people who owned/own it.” Thanks to their lucid, well-researched arguments, Goeman and Dean have offered a model for this journey and, in the process, made their mark.

This review “Troubled Legacies: The Map and the Canoe” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 148-49.

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