Humanities at Large

Activating Relationship to Build Our Canoe

Submitted by Jill Carter on November 16 2018.
Deep Time Working Group encounters the Great Lakes Canoe Journey at Water's Edge

By Jill Carter (Co-Convenor: Deep Time), October 2018

Deep Time Working Group members
Deep Time Working Group members. Photo: Mehrangiz Monsef, 2018

Taakwaakin (autumn) is for the Anishinaabeg a time of preparation. It seems most fitting, then, that on a miraculously mild day near the end of October, members of the Deep Time working group met with Sylvia Plain (founder and coordinator of the Great Lakes Canoe Journey) to prepare a relationship-build at Kabechenong  (the Humber River).
“I’m not going to tell you that,” said Sylvia in response to a settler-researcher who requested explicit instructions around the fabrication of the wiikwaas ciimaan (birch bark canoe) to whom she had introduced us and from whom we were to receive lessons in paddling, partnering, and research methods. “Neither will any other traditional canoe-builder.”
“But then,” pushed her interlocutor, “how am I to learn it? How did you learn it?”
“You do the work,” said Sylvia. It’s that simple. Do the work. Build partnerships. Work in community with builders, offering your strength and sweat to the task of building something wonderful that will never belong solely to you. Over time and in relationship, she told us, this is how we might begin to learn.
As Sylvia spoke, an activation was beginning.

Carrying a canoe
Carrying a canoe. Photo: Jill Carter, 2018

The canoe to whom Sylvia introduced us is the locus of numerous activations and itself a peripatetic activator: “The Canoe is my teacher; I just go where it takes me,” Sylvia told us.  As she went on to enumerate the communities (human and non-human) that had contributed to its fabrication, the stories of each became clearly legible through every detail of the canoe’s design. Its outer flesh was harvested in Waswagoning where the Anishinaabeg there share this precious resource with countless basket-makers, and canoe makers from nations for whom healthy birch is becoming increasingly difficult to locate.  Its cedar and maple bones were harvested in Hiawatha First Nation and Michigan, while bear grease and sap to seal and protect her were provided by still other communities. This canoe is filled, then, with the collective spirit, intention, knowledge systems and labour of multiple communities. Through its lifetime, as it cuts through the waterways that connect the communities of the Great Lakes Peoples, it will carry the gifts with which it has been invested back to their sources, as the story thickens and the relational web is extended.

The young people who had gathered at PCVS High School in Peterborough (or Nogojiwanong) to build this canoe entered into relationship with these harvesters and with knowledge keepers and design experts from these and other Anishinaabe communities. Now, all of these storied lives, meeting at Nogojiwanong—mingling at “the place at the end of the rapids”—are now inscribed into the very DNA of the vessel with, in and through which Sylvia chose to begin teaching the Deep Time membership about research-relationships and canoe families.

Sylvia Plain helps Keren Rice into the canoe
Sylvia Plain helps Keren Rice into the canoe. Photo: Jill Carter, 2018
Sylvia Plain shares canoe teachings
Sylvia Plain shares canoe teachings. Photo Jill Carter, 2018

All the relationships that were activated in her construction remain alive within this canoe. And as the day drew on, I felt myself being drawn more deeply into this relational web-- activated by and activating the land and waters around me as my paddle contacted the water, as the waterfowl swam along beside us, as a cormorant took flight, as seagulls wheeled overhead, as ladybugs peeped out at us from the undersides of leaves, as my paddling-partner steered us to shore and as Sylvia and her helper Mehrangiz Monsef pulled us to safety, helping each of us in and out of the canoe in  our turn.

“You build your best to give it away,” Sylvia told us, articulating a “hard” teaching she had received after putting much of her spirit and all of her effort into building a canoe that the Anishinaabe Canoe Family of which she is a part gave away to the Squaxin Island Tribe after only three days. And this is a teaching that has activated, in me, an ability to more precisely conceptualize and articulate, in Anishinaabe terms, my own purposes as a researcher. The research-project is a canoe, containing the spirit, intentions, knowledge systems, and labour of myriad individuals, their ancestors, and their communities. Invested as they are with the spirits of so many, the outputs we produce, the knowledge systems we disseminate, and the knowledges we create (like the canoes that Sylvia builds) are not ours to keep; they do not exist to provide an individual researcher (or team or institution) with profit, honour, or pleasure. Rather, they activate a complex relational web; they are held and stewarded by all the communities and individuals who have contributed to their making; and they reverberate—activating ripples—through space and time to effect (for better or for worse) life on earth for the generations who follow us.