Bruce Erickson, Sarah Wylie Krotz, eds. The Politics of the Canoe. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2021. 270 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-88755-909-9; $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-88755-912-9.
Reviewed by Robert Olajos (Nipissing University) Published on H-Environment (October, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56631
What is the political significance of the canoe in Canada? The Politics of the Canoe, edited by Bruce Erickson (assistant professor of geography at the University of Manitoba) and Sarah Wylie Krotz (associate professor of Canadian literature at the University of Alberta), answers this question with contributions from academia and beyond. The book’s ten chapters dismantle the idea of the canoe as a national symbol of Canada and identify it instead as a vehicle for decolonization, reconnection with the land, Indigenous cultural resurgence, and reconciliation between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples.
The Politics of the Canoe is divided into three sections. Section 1, “Assessing Indigenous Sovereignty,” considers the resurgence in Indigenous canoeing over the last thirty-five years. Chapter 1 examines Tribal Canoe Journeys, an annual gathering held on the Pacific coast, from the perspective of the Heiltsuk nation, while chapter 2 looks at the same event from the perspective of the Chinook. The gathering sees coastal nations paddling community-carved dugout canoes to host communities, where thousands gather for multiday ceremonies. It reconnects nations and communities, reinvigorates precolonial diplomatic and trading relationships, reaffirms Indigenous political authority and sovereignty in traditional territories, and helps to heal the traumas of colonialism and genocide. Chapter 3 brings the reader to Tucho (Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories), where the introduction of motorboats in the mid-twentieth century caused canoe use among the Tlicho to decline. Since 1995, local elders and the school board have organized a youth canoe trip from which participants return feeling energetic, awakened, and powerful, with “a profound need to protect the land they had just been on” (p. 83). For this nation, resurgent canoe use strengthens sovereignty by connecting youth, elders, and political leaders with the land.
The birchbark canoes of northeastern Turtle Island (an Algonquian name for North America) connect language, land, and material culture; the book’s second section highlights the material histories, relationships, and local knowledges that shape such canoes. Chapter 4 considers nineteenth-century anthropologist and Indigenous canoe “expert” Edward Tappan Adney. Like many of his contemporaries, Adney assumed that Indigenous cultures and languages were disappearing. His life’s work entailed recording languages and canoe designs in today’s New England and Atlantic Canada. Language revivalists today recognize Adney’s role in language decline, while also using his records in their work. Settler-colonialism’s violent reorganization of Indigenous lands and attempted destruction of Indigenous languages severely damaged knowledge of canoe construction and materials. This connection is evident in chapter 5, where Algonquin birchbark canoe builders along the Ottawa River lead the way in cultural and linguistic resurgence, while also using settler society’s interest in the canoe and Indigenous cultures for reconciliation.
The third section, “Telling Histories,” uses four stories to illustrate four different ways the canoe shapes Turtle Island. Chapter 7 examines the journals of seventeenth-century French explorer Louis Armand, Baron de Lahontan, to suggest that he reached the Upper Missouri River as claimed, contrary to assumptions that his journals are fictitious. Marginalia includes drawings of what appears to be a midwestern dugout canoe and a Pacific coast war canoe, suggesting how widely people and information traveled in precolonial Turtle Island. Chapter 8 analyzes class, wilderness ideology, and Canadian canoe culture through father and son Don and Dana Starkell’s world-record “longest canoe trip” from Winnipeg to the mouth of the Amazon River. The Starkells fit uneasily in canoe culture: they imagined themselves Spanish conquistadores paddling south to Latin America, not voyageurs going north to the Canadian wilderness, and were working-class men participating in an upper-middle-class activity. Chapter 9 considers a partnership between Algonquin land protectors and whitewater paddlers to stop a dam on eastern Ontario’s Petawawa River. Though the “Pet” is heavily affected by colonial land use, its defenders portrayed the river as unspoiled and an essential site of Algonquin culture. The final chapter takes us on a canoe trip in central Ontario to ask how the objects we bring on a canoe trip (maps, food, and the canoe itself) hold history, guide us, construct wilderness, and figure in colonial landscapes and family histories. Opportunities for decolonization are identified, such as reviving languages, understanding treaties, and building meaningful relationships with the land and across cultures.
Erickson and Wylie Krotz do an admirable job centering Indigenous perspectives, unlike previous books. This treatment is overdue. Many of the chapters are collaborative efforts between Indigenous knowledge keepers and settler allies, a tangible example of the role of the canoe in reconciliation.
Though The Politics of the Canoe intends to broaden perspectives, it lacks diversity, leading the reader to assume that only Indigenous peoples and Euro-Canadian settlers go canoeing. Today’s paddling community is more diverse than ever. Perhaps a second volume will reach out to Black women canoeists like Tori Baird, Jacqueline L. Scott, or Demisha Dennis. Also missing are contributions centering gender, 2SLGBTQQIA, and ability politics, or anything from outside North America.
So what is the political significance of the canoe in Canada, according to this book? The canoe plays a central role in decolonization by facilitating Indigenous cultural and political resurgence and reconciliation between Euro-Canadian settlers and Indigenous peoples, and by reconnecting both to the land.
Citation: Robert Olajos. Review of Erickson, Bruce; Krotz, Sarah Wylie, eds., The Politics of the Canoe. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56631This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.