Building birch bark canoes: oral histories, colonial archives, and stories of survivance

Date created: 
Keywords: Birch bark canoes: survivance
Salvage ethnography
Oral history
National Film Board of Canada
E. Tappan Adney

Colonial archival practices have promoted the absence of Indigenous knowledge as part of broader attempts at cultural assimilation and erasure. 20th century anthropology’s ‘salvage ethnographies’ reduced cultures to their material objects, largely muting the complex social and linguistic forms to which those objects belong. I examine one such object, the birch bark canoe, in two related archives: documentary films produced predominantly by the National Film Board of Canada between the 1920s and 70s; and the canoe researches of American artist, journalist and ethnographer E. Tappan Adney (1868-1950). Archival agendas and conventions give way to what Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor has named practices of survivance, aesthetic expressions which challenge “isolated and stoical” portraits of Indigeneity. Canoe building, a practice that invariably belongs to scenes of everyday life – to people in particular places, and to local languages – enlivens each archives with “motion, presence, and survivance”, telling stories of cultural resilience and humanity.

Document type: 
This thesis may be printed or downloaded for non-commercial research and scholarly purposes. Copyright remains with the author.
Senior supervisor: 
Stuart Poyntz
Communication, Art & Technology: School of Communication
Thesis type: 
(Thesis) M.A.