This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2004

This Boat Is My Boat

Drew Hayden TaylorWebsite

First they stole our land, then our methods of water transportation. Cultural appropriation aside, is it too much to ask that weekend warriors give the canoe and kayak some respect?


F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote “The rich are different from you and I,” to which everybody usually responds, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.” On a similar theme, it’s been my Ojibway-tainted observation over the years that “middle-class white people are different from you and I.” Yeah. They’re insane.

Much has been written over the years about the differences between native people and non-native people, and way they view life. I think there’s no better example of this admittedly broad opinion than in the peculiar world of outdoor recreational water sports and the death wish that inspires them.

As a member of Canada’s Indigenous population, I’ve cast a suspicious glance at all these waterlogged enthusiasts for several reasons. The principal one is the now familiar concept of cultural appropriation—this time of our methods of water transportation. On any given weekend, Canadian rivers are jam-packed with plastic and fibreglass kayaks and canoes, hardly of them filled with authentic Inuit or First Nations people, all looking to taunt death using an aboriginal calling card.

Historically, kayaks and canoes were the life’s blood of Inuit and native communities. They were vital means of transportation and survival, not toys to amuse bored weekend warriors. To add insult to injury and further illustrate my point, there is a brand of gloves used by kayakers to protect their hands from developing calluses. They are called Nootkas. To the best of my knowledge, the real Nootka, a West Coast First Nation, neither kayaked nor wore gloves.

Perhaps my argument can best be articulated with an example of the different ways these two cultural groups react to a single visual stimulus. A group of native people and white people sit in two separate canoes before a long stretch of roaring rapids—with large pointy rocks and lots and lots of turbulent white water. Watch the different reactions.

Granted, I’m generalizing, but I think I can safely say the vast majority of native people, based on thousands of years of travelling the rivers of this great country of ours, would probably go home and order a pizza. Or possibly put the canoe in their Ford pickup and drive downstream to a more suitable and safe location. And pick up pizza on the way. Usually, the only white water native people enjoy is in their showers. Hurtling toward potential death and certain injury tends to go against many traditional native beliefs. Contrary to popular assumption, “portage” is not a French word—it is Ojibway for “Are you crazy? I’m not going through that! Do you know how much I paid for this canoe?”

Now you put some sunburned Caucasian canoeists in the same position, their natural inclination is to aim directly for the rapids paddling as fast as they can toward the white water. I heard a rumour once that Columbus was aiming his three ships directly at a raging hurricane when he discovered the Bahamas. I believe I have made my point.

I make these observations based on personal experience. Recently, for purely anthropological reasons, I risked my life to explore the unique subcultures of white water canoeing and sea kayaking. There is also a sport known as white water kayaking, but I have yet to put that particular bullet in my gun. So for three days, I found myself in the middle of Georgian Bay, during a storm, testing my abilities at sea kayaking. I, along with a former Olympic rower, a Quebecois lawyer who consulted on the Russian constitution, one of Canada’s leading diabetes specialists, and a six-foot-seven ex-Mormon who could perform exorcisms, bonded over four-foot swells and lightning. All in all, I think a pretty normal crosscut of average Canadians. The higher the waves, the more exciting they found the experience.

Still, I often find these outings to be oddly patriotic in their own way. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve seen people wringing out their drenched shirts, showing an array of tan lines, usually a combination of sunburned red skin and fishbelly-white stomachs. It reminds me of the red-and-white motif on the Canadian flag. Maybe that’s where the federal government got its inspiration back in the 1960s for our national emblem.

But this is only one of several sports originated by various Indigenous populations that have been corrupted and marketed as something fun to do when not sitting behind a desk in a high-rise office building. The Scandinavian Sami, otherwise known as Laplanders, were instrumental in the development of skiing. Though I doubt climbing to the top of a mountain and hurling themselves down as fast as gravity and snow would allow was a culturally ingrained activity. The same could be said of bungee jumping. Originally a coming-of-age ritual in the South Pacific, young boys would build platforms, tie vines to their legs and leap off to show their bravery and passage into adulthood. I doubt the same motivation still pervades the sport, if it can be called a sport.

I have brought up the issue of recreational cultural appropriation many times with a friend who organizes these outdoor adventures. The irony is she works at a hospital. And she chews me out for not wearing a helmet while biking. She says there is no appropriation. If anything, her enthusiasm for the sports is a sign of respect and gratefulness.

That is why I think people should pay a royalty of sorts every time they try to kill themselves using one of our cultural legacies. I’m not sure if any aboriginal group has ever sought a patent or copyright protection for kayaks or canoes—that probably was not part of the treaty negotiations. But somebody should definitely investigate the possibility. Or better yet, every time a non-native person white water canoes down the Madawaska River, or goes kayaking off Tobermory, they should first take an aboriginal person to lunch. That is a better way of showing respect and gratefulness. And it involves much less paperwork.

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