The Politics of the Canoe, edited by Bruce Erickson and Sarah Wylie Krotz, is a book of a different sort than that from which I normally obtain content for this blog or choose to review. A collection of essays, mostly academic in nature, it does not address the nuts and bolts of boat design, construction, or usage. As its title indicates, its central theme is the political implications of canoes. The book has no subtitle, but one would have been useful to clarify that its focus is upon the canoe in Canada, although a couple of the essays deal with some of the northern United States. The editors’ Preface describes it as “a multifaceted examination of a vessel that, while structurally simple, is remarkably complex in its meanings” (p.x).
Meanings, of course, are not inherent in objects, but instead are created, imposed by people, and any meanings that canoes have are therefore subjective. To the extent that “everything is political”, then canoes certainly have the potential to be viewed from a political point of view, just as a hammer can be “merely” a hammer, or it can symbolize the proletariat. Many of the essays’ authors read Colonialist meanings in the traditional Canadian discourse regarding canoes and argue for a new canoe discourse with First Nations at its center. Many of them are themselves First Nations people of Canada, and many are in academia, so the pro-indigenous, anti-colonial outlook that informs several of the essays is not unexpected. That said, the theme of “the political canoe” is addressed through varied, even eccentric, approaches, making for mostly diverse and engaging reading.
The book’s Introduction, written by its editors, uses the presentation of canoes in museums as a framework for addressing the politics inherent in the Canadian perception of canoes. Canoes in museum collections, they say, are problematic: “Given that canoes aren’t just cultural objects but are fundamental to many communities’ relations—as family members, as embodied heritage and sovereignty, as living parts of the land—the implications of placing them on display differ depending on the traditions from which the canoes came. In other words, context matters” (p.3).
Drawing on the work of other scholars, Erickson and Krotz outline the historic process by which the indigenous Canadian canoe was adopted by European settlers, notably by the voyageurs for the fur trade, after which it morphed into a recreational craft for a mainly middle class, white audience. As this transition occurred in a Canada increasingly settled and “civilized” by Europeans, the canoe’s indigenous origin was submerged by a mythology valorizing the voyageurs, who were depicted as having used the fur-trade canoe to bring order and civilization to a wild, unsettled land. Indigenous presence and history were erased from the narrative, and the indigenous invention and use of the canoe were part of the process. The greatest significance of the erasure of the indigenous canoe does not lie in the settlers’ tacit claim to the technology; more importantly, because the canoe was central to the cultures of many of Canada’s First Nations and formed both practical and cognitive bases of the people’s connection to the land which they inhabited, erasing the indigeneity of the canoe also erased culture and past occupation of the landscape – which, in turn, erased claims of land sovereignty.
This interpretation informs many of the essays, most of which address the position of the canoe at the intersection of indigenous and settler culture. But other factors are also at play, and other perspectives addressed. As the editors note, "Colonialism certainly looms large over the history of the canoe, but canoes are also intertwined in histories of masculinity, wilderness, consumption, and industrialization, among others” (p.6). And further, “the canoes in this book are agents not just of romantic affiliation with wilderness but of protest, power, governance, social and environmental knowledge, history, cultural resurgence, and sovereignty. Their politics range from collective actions to intensely personal, individual ones” (p.13).
The book is organized in three parts, and each of its ten chapters is preceded by a map which provides the geographic setting of its subject. Some of the essays are accompanied by photographs. The entire production is in black and white.
Each of the three essays/chapters in Part 1, which is titled “Asserting Indigenous Sovereignty”, concern different First Nations’ initiatives of cultural revitalization through canoe voyaging. Chapter 1, “Tribal Canoe Journeys and Indigenous Cultural Resurgence: A Story from the Heiltsuk Nation”, by Frank Brown, Hillary Beattie, Vina Brown, and Ian Mauro, begins with a brief history of the Heilstuk people (often called the Bella Bella) under colonialism. It then focuses on the history of the cultural gathering and voyaging program called Tribal Canoe Journeys (TCJ), which has been going on regularly since 1993. The authors emphasize the value of the program in reconnecting people of many of the Pacific Northwest’s First Nations, especially young people, to tribal traditions and ways of thought, and establishing solidarity between First Nations. They show how the voyaging itself, along with the shoreside activities associated with it, heal personal traumas, enhance participants’ self worth, and provide a venue for learning traditional language, song, dance, and history. Also strengthened during the meetings are intergenerational relationships; understanding and appreciation of the natural environment and resources; and strategies associated with environmental protection and land sovereignty.
Chapter 2, “This Is What Makes Us Strong: Canoe Revitalization, Reciprocal Heritage, and the Chinook Indian Nation”, by Rachel L. Cushman, Jon D. Daehnke, and Tony A. Johnson, covers much the same ground about Tribal Canoe Journeys and its predecessor, Paddle to Seattle, but focuses on the experience of the Chinook Nation. It uses lengthy first-person passages by co-author Cushman, who has participated in several of the voyages, to personalize the experience, and it makes the important point that “rather than being backward-looking and nostalgic, this form of reciprocal heritage is instead tribally relevant, based in current and ongoing relationships and responsibilities, and thus active, forward-looking, and resilient” (pp.51-52). Discussing “protocols” – traditional rules of behaviour that are taught at and which govern shoreside sessions on the voyages – the authors state, “…the performance of protocol is not just an aspect of culture, it is fundamentally an act of decolonization” (p.57). They make a distinction that I personally found enlightening and important:
“There can be a tendency to present these types of claims to heritage as something artificial, as invented political creations primarily constructed to convince others of the rightfulness of the claims. For the Chinook Indian Nation, however, the performance of protocols is not an act created or designed to convince others of the rightfulness of their heritage claims or their Indigeneity. Instead, it is simply behaviour done to ensure that the requirements of the reciprocal relationships between actors, both human and non-human, are fulfilled” (p.65).
They contrast this with voyageur re-enactments, which they describe as a display of nostalgia, a “yearning for the period of colonialism itself” (p.66).
“Whaèhdǫ ǫ̀ Etǫ K’e”, the title of Chapter 3, means “Trails of our Ancestors” and is the name of another voyaging-and-revitalization program, this one by the “Tłı̨chǫ Nation”. I find the use of such special typographic characters by authors John B. Zoe and Jessica Dunkin unhelpful, and partially blame the book’s editors for its presence. I had to refer to Wikipedia to learn that “Tłı̨chǫ” … people, sometimes spelled Tlicho and also known as the Dogrib, are a Dene First Nations people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group living in the Northwest Territories, Canada.” The purpose of Trails of our Ancestors is to reconnect Tlicho youth with the landscape around them, and to the stories, traditions and culture embedded within it. This, the authors explain, is “both a physical and symbolic act of resistance to colonial efforts to remove Tłı̨chǫ from the land” (p.85). I was struck by the statement that “Women and men worked together to build canoes” (p.77) in traditional Tlicho culture and wished for more detail, as direct female participation in boatbuilding is rare in traditional cultures.
Thus, the first three chapters all deal with different manifestations of the same phenomenon and, while each has a unique and valuable perspective, it is also somewhat repetitive. The reader will find greater variety of subject matter in the remaining parts of the book.
The theme of Part 2, Building Canoes, Knowledge, and Relationships, seems an amorphous one that doesn’t really provide a coherent theme for its three chapters – for which we might be thankful, given the excessive thematic consistency of Part 1. Chapter 4, “Model Canoes, Territorial Histories, and Linguistic Resurgence: Decolonizing the Tappan Adney Archives”, by Chris Ling Chapman, discusses the ethnographic work conducted in New Brunswick, Canada, by the author of the excellent and influential The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. Adney, the authors explain, was conducting what is known as “salvage anthropology” – the desperate collection of data in the face of imminent cultural disappearance, as was widely believed (among settlers) at that time to apply to the First Nations of Canada. In addition to the renowned model canoes he built from first-hand observation of full-size canoes, it is Adney’s unpublished notebooks that represent what were considered to be “salvage archives”. As it turned out, most of Canada’s First Nations survived, and Adney’s archives, far from being a record of dead cultures, are now providing valuable resources for the revitalization of those cultures. Among the most important of their content is Adney’s recording of native languages, which is aiding current efforts to revive those languages after decades of white efforts to exterminate them along with other aspects of indigenous culture.
In spite of Chuck Commanda’s prodigious skill as a builder of bark canoes and his substantial contribution to the revival of the craft, Chapter 5, “Ginawaydaganuc: The Birchbark Canoe in Algonquin Community Resurgence and Reconciliation”, by Commanda, Larry McDermott, and Sarah Nelson, is the weakest essay in the collection. Unfortunately, the chapter reads like a manifesto, a lengthy series of didactic assertions of the power and importance of bark canoe building as a tool for revitalizing and preserving cultural heritage. Any of its numerous assertions might well be valid, but none of them are adequately supported by evidence or logical argument. One example taken truly at random will illustrate this: “Teaching a young Indigenous person how to become a canoe builder can give them a path in life and a reason to have both hope for the future and pride in their people” (p.113). As a goal, this is admirable, but there is no indication here that it is true: the authors provide no data, examples, or even anecdotes, to support it, and this is the case with dozens of similar assertions throughout the chapter. Two lengthy appendices, consisting of the texts of two sections of the 2010 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, are peripheral to the chapter’s main argument and could have been satisfactorily replaced with URLs for online locations of the texts.
Chapter 6, “Pathways to the Forest: Meditations on the Colonial Landscape”, by Jonathan Goldner, is a first-person account of learning how and where to harvest birchbark for canoe construction. Goldner uses his description of that education, and of the harvesting process itself, to evocatively discuss the history and impact of colonialism on the Algonquin landscape of Quebec and Ontario. Harvesting bark serves as a microcosm for that impact and a metaphor of native rights to the land. It’s a thoughtful, personal, almost poetic piece by “a relative newcomer, a settler, a non-Indigenous, academically inclined male urbanite” (p.136) attempting to understand the indigenous point of view.
Part 3, “Telling Histories”, begins with Chapter 7, “Beyond Birchbark: How Lahontan’s images of Unfamiliar Canoes Confirm His Remarkable Western Expedition of 1688”, by Peter H. Wood. Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan, Baron de Lahontan, explored areas west and south of the Great Lakes in 1688-89. His book about his travels, which includes descriptions of the geography and the indigenous people he encountered, was published in 1703 and went into several translations and editions but, because of his anti-Jesuit opinions, Pope Clement XI banned it. Between that official censure and some inaccuracies in his geography that became clear after later explorations, his account has been largely discounted as fiction, and aspersions cast upon the trustworthiness of both the man and his travel account. Author Wood believes the book is a largely accurate description of the Midwest’s geography as Lahontan saw it, with a few errors such as are likely to appear in any such work of this time and era. He identifies the river Lahontan travelled along and called the River Longue as the middle and upper Missouri River. He bases this conclusion mainly on two canoe illustrations on a map in the book, the accuracy of which, he argues, must have been due to Lahontan’s actual travel through the region. This argument is weak. The illustrations are rough and schematic, and Woods’ identification of them with specific indigenous boat designs questionable. The one identified as a dugout canoe of the continent’s interior could just as well depict a bark canoe, for all its lack of detail. Regarding the other, Lahontan explained that it represents a canoe from the Pacific Northwest, which he never claimed to have come even close to, and the information for it was obtained from an indigenous slave from that region whom he spoke with while in the Dakotas. In fact, the illustration is not nearly so convincing a depiction of a Kwakiutl logboat as Wood claims it is, and Lahontan’s stated source provides no assurance whatsoever that he travelled the Missouri or visited the Dakotas. I have not read Lahontan’s book and I have no opinion on its veracity, but Wood’s evidence for its truthfulness is weak.
Another weakness concerning the essay is its “political” aspect. The pope’s banning of Lahontan’s book was a political act which influenced popular perception of its accuracy, but that has nothing to do with canoes. Wood employs iconographic evidence of canoes in order to establish Lahontan’s credibility and overcome the ramifications of that political act of censorship, but that seems a tenuous connection to the book’s theme.
Chapter 8, “Monumental Trip: Don Starkell’s Canoe Voyage from Winnipeg to the Mouth of the Amazon”, by Albert Braz, is perhaps the most accessible and engaging of the essays, mainly because it recounts (in condensed form) the narrative of Starkell’s 1987 book, Paddle to the Amazon. Braz feels that the book, its author, and his achievement (paddling a canoe 12,000 miles from Winnipeg to Belem, Brazil) have not attained the recognition and respect in Canada that are their due. This, he argues, is due to Starkell's lower-class (white, Canadian) origin, pugnacious attitude, and straightforward prose, which do not mesh well with the largely middle-class identification of modern Canadian recreational canoeing, nor with the more literary style of most popular expedition narratives. Starkell obtained scant attention, much less support, from the Canadian government while traveling through Latin America, and a secondary political aspect of the essay treats with Canada's negligible visibility and influence in Latin America.
In Chapter 9, “The Dam That Wasn’t: How the Canoe Became Political on the Petawawa River”, Cameron Baldassarra describes how multiple constituencies, including recreational canoeists, kayakers, and rafters, environmentalists, historical preservationists, hunters and fishers, a town, and First Nations people, formed an alliance to oppose a planned hydropower dam near Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. The canoe became a central symbol and rallying point for that opposition due to its multiple meanings and uses: as a symbol of wilderness; as a vehicle to enter and utilize the landscape and its resources in a sustainable manner; as recreation; as a sustainable economic activity; as indigenous heritage. It is ironic that what stopped the dam was not grassroots politics, but the Canadian military, whose nearby base would have been partially flooded by the dam. But this, the author asserts, does not negate the wide appeal, symbolic power, and organizing potential of the canoe.
In the final essay, “Unpacking and Repacking the Canoe: Canoe as Research Vessel” (Chapter 10), anthropologist Danielle Gendron uses a canoe trip along the 386-km length of the Trent-Severn Waterway (TSW), a partly-artificial inland route between Lakes Huron and Ontario, as a personal approach to explore "my engagement with and study of Indigenous landscapes" (p.215). The author colorfully details a bit of the lives of her Metis (mixed European and First Nations) fourth-level great-grandfather, who worked for the Hudson Bay Company, and his Metis wife, and says they surely would have travelled through this landscape prior to creation of the TSW.
Gendron describes how European settlers altered this former Anishinaabe landscape, first for agriculture, then for commercial shipping, and finally for recreation, and in the process erased indigenous people from the landscape. As a nationally designated historical location, the TSW ignores the indigenous past and creates a “colonialscape”, a term Gendron borrows from Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Sarah Hunt. This returns to the theme addressed by others in the book, of how the canoe, the landscape, and the past have all been appropriated in a manner that positions whiteness as the official Canadian identity. “How can we disrupt these colonialscapes that are perpetuated through the practice of canoeing?” Gendron asks. “How can we understand canoe trips as negotiating colonized Indigenous territories rather than a natural wonderland?”
As partial answers, she recommends sources from which readers can learn about native occupation, embeddedness, and history in the landscape, and urges the importance of learning the native names for places one travels through. She does not make the unrealistic recommendation that everyone become an expert in native history, but instead suggests that the canoe can be used as a vehicle to “engage in understanding colonial processes and the colonialscape of Canada” (p.227) – a suggestion that aptly summarizes the central theme of this worthwhile and thought-provoking collection of essays.
The Politics of the Canoe
Bruce Erickson and Sarah Wylie Krotz, editors
University of Manitoba Press
ISBN 978-0-88735-909-9 (paperbound: also in e-book, hardcover)