Canoeing as Undoing the Map

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This is the second post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.

A just future for water requires creating new water pedagogies. The need to address decolonial water pedagogies arises from the hegemony of terra-centrism, which by default pushes out freshwater systems as secondary to land.

The dominant tool of hegemonic terra-centrism is taking maps for granted in studying freshwater systems. Modern maps portray river systems as lines demarcating land connections from the source of the river to its mouth. I strongly believe we need to actively undo the lines of river systems on maps to attain a just water future. Knowledge of water systems should focus on communities and their imaginaries to bring forth their relationalities to a given water system. In undoing the lines on a map, the specificity of a community receives priority, but when drawn up, the local—and often Indigenous and autochthonous values—share common themes.

In an effort to undo the lines on a map and garner local themes on rivers, given my limited capacity as an Anthropology graduate student, I designed and conducted a class called “Rivers and Culture: Reading Beyond the Lines.” This class was designed for the January Term semester offered at the University of Virginia. In this term, a semester load of the class material is condensed into a two-week period. Often this term is used for field-based classes. Since this class took place in January-2021, Zoom worked as the only viable mode for the class. Nevertheless, drawing from the class material and discussions, students learned to see rivers absent from common cartographic representations, and they felt an urgency to reinstate stewardship to local communities. Students also found it timely to suggest legal and fiscal measures against corporations, in pursuit of environmental justice. Given that the class took place amidst the pandemic students drew distinctions between pandemic and climate-related emergencies and analyzed the urgency of departing from inequalities imposed by modern, western thought processes marring all aspects of society.

Within the first few classes, I sensed a reluctance among students to further engage with theoretical solutions, so I chose instead to focus on the recurring theme of the canoe as an Indigenous motif and the act of canoeing as a decolonial exercise. Such a theme sparked the interest of the students. The canoe emerged as a common theme across various riverine cultures. First, Indigenous groups have already been practicing canoeing as a means of decolonization. Second, a growing body of scholarly, artistic, and activist work shows the importance of canoeing in securing a just water future.

Several readings include the canoe as a mode of transportation, both material and symbolic. In explaining the life of Native-Americans on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, Richard White (1996)1 illustrates the expenditure of energy in rowing canoes through choppy waters to catch salmon—the staple source of native diet—metabolically binding the community to the river. On the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, the canoe represents male virulence rowing through the female river and the meeting of the two (river and canoe) symbolizes continuity.2 However, in recent times, only a motorized canoe represents potent male energy, while the female river remains unchanged in terms of drawing the labour of the male. This reflects on the recurring theme of the canoe across the time of technology transfer.

Julia V. Runk discusses the ontology of Wounaan people on the Baudo River and the Pacific Confluence beach in Panama.3 For the Wounaan, the river spans beyond the surface and consists of an underwater world, while the canoe, here too, symbolizes virulence. Continuity of material life lies in canoeing, which materially connects people across kin through different parts of the river.

The Muyuw living by the Alanay River in PNG share the same word for the sacred sago tree and its parts as that of the outrigger canoe. Frederick H. Damon argues the outriggers structure the social hierarchy and its symbolic importance can be seen in the realm of language.4 The canoe not only materially transports, but symbolically makes meaning across world(s) of different variations. In going through these texts, my students and I were struck by the recurring theme of the canoe across cultures—I did not intend to find the canoe as the common denominator across these readings, but the motif of the canoe travelled well between these diverse pieces.

Yet, given the core theme of the readings, students wondered about policy mechanisms to remake cultures if the lines on a map had been undone and instead rethought through the scope of the canoe. In this light, Ashley Smith deploys the canoe as a mode of decolonization with contemporary Wabanaki people in Maine.5 Today, the Wabanaki use ritual canoeing as a way of connecting with their ancestors who rowed through the same waters once upon a time. Canoeing also helps them connect to parts of their kin spread across the river network. The auspices of settler colonialism compartmentalized parts of the Wabanaki kin, separated parts of the kin from one another and restricted access to the river which alienated the ontological relationality to the waters.

Today, the Wabanaki decolonize as the act of canoeing hauls the Wabanaki across time and centres the ontological presence of the river in their lives. Canoeing helps the Wabanaki actively honour, reconnect, and build new relationships with their ancestors, otherwise alienated by colonial cartography and associated practices.

Students learned from Smith’s 2020 talk that the Wabanaki invite others to participate in solidarity in their decolonizing exercise to spread the message of conserving not only the river but their life-worlds.6 Upon learning of this invitation, they suggested canoeing in the James River which runs through Charlottesville, VA (the location of UVA’s campus). If we could have popped right out of our Zoom windows onto the James River, we would have! We also showed an awareness towards not universalizing the act of canoeing. In that sense, perhaps the original custodians of the James River fare away from canoeing. Without further knowledge students cautioned against drawing conclusions. We learnt to appreciate the project of decolonization as a departure from standardization which requires the agency of the Indigenous persons in charge of the land. Nevertheless, canoeing or not, the lessons from this part of the course began to resonate with students in a way they searched for tangible responsibilities to look beyond lines. I would have preferred to plan a field trip, but in January 2021 that was an impossibility.  

Unable to go canoeing, but committed to environmental justice and just water futures, I provided students with a YouTube tutorial on paper-canoe making.7 When I designed the class, I had no idea on the level of emphasis, I would have to exert on canoes. Students expressed unanimous skepticism of this exercise as they cultivated the meaning of the canoe shared across Indigenous cultures and the impossibility of harnessing any meaning within their comfortable setting. Instead, they reported on developing empathy, a deepened appreciation, and a push to get involved in learning more about Indigenous cultures.

Part of this apprehension also derived from a virtually close scrutiny of “Why Canoes” exhibit held at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Gallery.8 The exhibition provided a glimpse into the different types of canoes assembled by the Anishnaabe, Polowat, and Dakota peoples. By looking closely at the equipment used and the designs for specific rivers, students pondered on the perception required of the water-bodies which could materialize into functional boats.

In this manner, students learned to avoid the lines drawn by those who have no connection to the water systems and instead learn from those who are already erasing those enshrined lines. In Indigenous systems canoeing undoes the centrality of lines on a map and instead focuses on the possibilities of a just water future. Students were able to connect their positionalities to the possibilities of decolonizing lines on a map and take responsibility for learning about the water bodies surrounding them with a focus on communities. Though the size and scope of the class limited scaling-up classes such as this could canoe a generation of students to read beyond the lines of the map.


  1. White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.
  2. Silverman, Eric, K. The Sepik River, Papua New Guinea: Nourishing Tradition and Modern Catastrophe. In Island Rivers: Fresh Water and Place in Oceania, edited by Jerry, Jacka K and Wagner, John R. Acton ACT, Australia: ANU press. Available at < Pp. 187-223.
  3. Runk, Julia Velásquez. “Social and River Networks for the Trees: Wounaan’s Riverine Rhizomic Cosmos and Arboreal Conservation – Runk – 2009 – American Anthropologist – Wiley Online Library.” American Anthropologist 111, no. 4 (2009): 456–67.
  4. Damon, F.H. 2016. Trees, Knots are Outriggers: Environmental Knowledge in Northeast Kula Ring. Berghahn Press: New York.
  5. Smith, Ashley. “Re-membering Norridgewock Stories and Politics of a Place Multiple Remembering Norridgeworck Storties and Politics of a Place Multiple.” Cornell University, 2017.
  6. Smith, Ashley. Indigenous Interventions in Historical Inquiry Or How Do We “River” It? All Water Has a Memory: Rivers and American History- Indigenous Resistance Panel, 2020.
  7. MR. CREATOR. How to Make a Paper Canoe – Paper Boat Making Origami Tutorial for Creators, 2017.
  8. Morrison, David. 2021. “Why Canoes? An Exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Gallery.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 18.

Feature image: Three traditional wooden canoes on dark river water reflecting a cloudy sky. Photo by Adam Rhodes on Unsplash
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Saad Quasem

Recently, I finished my PhD in Socio-Cultural Anthropology. The crux of my research lies in linking climatic changes to deltas and marshlands. In particular, I study the shifting river islands (chars) in Chilmari, Bangladesh on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra River. I am interested in everyday life in continuity with the flowing river which challenges the seemingly omnipresent notion of "stable land", which I argue derives from the colonial practice of parcelling spaces, be it, land or water as private property.

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