‘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
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.