‘Ca­noe­ing is part of our his­tory, part of our blood. It’s who we are’

Those fi­bre­glass wa­ter­crafts are descen­dants of ca­noes carved out of trees, ribs made from whale bone

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE MIL­TON

THESE STAN­DARD­IZED ca­noes and kayaks, cre­ated from moulds and syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als, are not the wa­ter­craft of their fore­bears.

But they are the di­rect, and spir­i­tual, descen­dants.

A new gen­er­a­tion of pad­dlers — aged 12 to 18 — is com­pet­ing in ca­noe and kayak events at the North Amer­i­can Indige­nous Games at the Wel­land In­ter­na­tional Flat­wa­ter Cen­tre this week.

Most of the ath­letes con­sider it pri­mar­ily a sport, but most are also keenly aware that pad­dling is much more than that. It is a cul­tural, of­ten mys­tic, bridge be­tween their past and present.

“The ca­noe con­nects us tra­di­tion­ally to our an­ces­tors, who used to use it for hunt­ing and fish­ing,” says 18-year-old Kaidan Mc­Don­ald, an Inu­vialuit from Inu­vik, North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. “We turned it into a sport, to make it com­pet­i­tive, which I think is great.”

Mc­Don­ald, who’s also a tal­ented hockey player on the schol­ar­ship trail, won North­west Ter­ri­to­ries’ first gold medal in these games, pad­dling to a win in the U-19 mixed dou­bles 3,000 me­tres.

“It means a lot, es­pe­cially to me. My dad (Tim Gor­don, Team N.W.T. coach) used a

tra­di­tional wood ca­noe for hunt­ing muskrat and he brought me into the sport. Ca­noe­ing means a lot more to us than to the av­er­age per­son be­cause it’s our cul­ture and tra­di­tion.”

Ca­noe/kayak is one of three “tra­di­tional” sports, along with lacrosse and archery, which must be in­cluded in ev­ery NAIG. There is a ca­noe or kayak, or both, in the his­tory of most Indige­nous peo­ple around the world.

Kayaks are be­lieved to date back 4,000 years or more in set­tle­ments around the north­ern seas and oceans, and ex­ca­va­tions in north­ern Europe in­di­cate ca­noe use there goes back twice as far.

“The tra­di­tional-ness of it is huge,” says Keir John­ston, a former mem­ber of Canada’s na­tional kayak devel­op­ment team, and now pad­dling team man­ager for Team On­tario pad­dlers and a mem­ber of the Abo­rig­i­nal Health and Well­ness Coun­cil of On­tario.

“A lot of the teams have come here with pad­dles that are hand­made. If you make your own equip­ment and race it, there’s that pride.

“There’s a def­i­nite re­spect for the water in­volved. I see the spirit of the water here for sure. That spirit means life to me. You have to re­spect a thing be­cause it has life. You have to re­spect water be­cause it gives you life. You don’t want to pol­lute it, you want to take care of it. That’s what spirit is to me. And that’s with any­thing in Mother Na­ture.”

John­ston, from the Chippe­was of the Thames First Na­tion, won four gold medals at NAIG 2006 and, now 25, still com­petes in the na­tional kayak­ing cham­pi­onships. He was born to be on the water.

“My dad was on a trip in B.C. when I was five months old and he took me out on the ocean,” he says.

“That was the mode of trans­porta­tion of our an­ces­tors. We built big­ger ca­noes for the lakes, smaller ones for the rivers. That’s how the ca­noe de­vel­oped.

“My dad has made boats. I’ve carved pad­dles be­fore, and helped make ca­noes, so I’m very in­ter­ested in that. I’ve had some peo­ple come in to teach build­ing birch bark ca­noes. Tra­di­tion­ally, it takes a long time to make a birch bark ca­noe. You have to har­vest all as­pects of the ca­noe to build it, so it can take a year.”

Early ca­noes and kayaks were made, of course, from wood, and in non­forested ar­eas of the north the ribs of a kayak were usu­ally made from whale bone. Not as many NAIG com­peti­tors have ex­pe­ri­ence with kayaks as with ca­noes — John­ston says it’s partly be­cause to­day’s good kayaks and pad­dles are too costly for many First Na­tions — and some, in­clud­ing Mc­Don­ald, had not com­peted in the hard-to-bal­ance kayaks be­fore ar­riv­ing here to ca­noe this week and de­cid­ing to give an­other event a try. Quite a few have cap­sized. Darby Robert, a Tetlit Gwich’in from Fort McPher­son, N.W.T., quips: “I would kayak … if I could swim.”

De­spite the com­mon­al­ity of spir­i­tual con­nec­tion to an­ces­tors and water, there are dif­fer­ences in the pad­dling back­grounds of the var­i­ous teams here. Some pad­dle on be­nign rivers and lakes, while Mc­Don­ald says he and his team­mates have some ad­van­tage be­cause they train on the heavy cur­rent of the fa­mous Macken­zie River, which is on the bucket list of many recre­ational pad­dlers.

And many mem­bers of Team B.C. and Team Wash­ing­ton pad­dle in the ocean, in tra­di­tional dugout ca­noes. They say pro­pel­ling the Clip­per ca­noes rented for these games, took a lit­tle ac­clima­ti­za­tion, but is much eas­ier than what they’re ac­cus­tomed to.

Au­tumn Wash­ing­ton, who won sev­eral NAIG pad­dling medals in the past, is now coach of Team Wash­ing­ton and sees the ca­noe as not only a di­rect con­nec­tion to her an­ces­tors, but as a ve­hi­cle for re­build­ing a na­tion.

“We be­lieve that the cedar tree is where our an­ces­tors go af­ter­ward,” says the mem­ber of the Lummi Na­tion, lo­cated near Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton. “All of our strength, all of our power comes from there. It’s where we can be one with our an­ces­tors and Mother Earth. So we use the cedar tree for our ca­noes.

“Our older ca­noes are all dugout ca­noes, made from one log of old growth, be­cause it’s big­ger and has fewer knots, so it’s eas­ier to work with and there’s less re­pair needed. But older growth is harder to come by now, so some have gone to cedar strip.”

She says that por­tions of her First Na­tion have been robbed of cul­tural con­ti­nu­ity, and un­der­stand­ing the role of the ca­noe in that cul­ture, be­cause “We lost a lot of our teach­ings and our el­ders, and a lot of cul­ture was taken away (by fed­eral govern­ments). We couldn’t speak the lan­guage, couldn’t teach the his­tory. It was, ‘Ei­ther go to a school and be a cit­i­zen, or you can stay with your tribe and not be a mem­ber of the United States.’ So a lot of youth don’t have some­one in the fam­ily to tell them about the cul­ture.

“We go to other parts of the world to ca­noe and they think we were col­o­nized and are not prac­tis­ing the cul­ture. They say, ‘Are there still Na­tive Amer­i­cans?’”

“Yes, we’re still here and ca­noe­ing is part of our his­tory, part of our blood. It’s who we are and where we come from.”


Si­las Wil­son and Mem­phis Wyse of Team B.C. win their heat at the North Amer­i­can Indige­nous Games on Wednes­day. The races are tak­ing place in Wel­land.


Sylvia White and Grace Di­abo of Team East­ern Door and North com­pete in a ca­noe race dur­ing the North Amer­i­can Indige­nous Games Wednes­day. The events are tak­ing place at the Wel­land In­ter­na­tional Flat­wa­ter Cen­tre.


Gor­don Ge­orge and Drake Leon of Team B.C. with their yel­low and red cedar hand­made pad­dles which they use when they race their ca­noes.


Au­tumn Wash­ing­ton, coach of Team Wash­ing­ton, sees the ca­noe as a ve­hi­cle for re­build­ing a na­tion.

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