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Canoeing through Stó:lõ Territories: Sepass Canoes and Object Lessons

Posted by Madeline Knicke...
6 September 2012 - 7:42am




Bill, Dave, Kevin and I stood in the middle of a silent longhouse in Mission, BC, staring up at an object hanging from the ceiling. Though I had seen it many times before, this was the first time I really considered it.

The object of our attention was a shovel-nosed canoe, carved from cedar, about 22 feet long and three feet wide. Shovel-nosed canoes, which in Halq’eméylem are called tl’elay, were developed by Stó:lõ people for use on the networks of rivers and streams that historically served the same purpose that the Trans-Canada Highway does today. The canoe’s shallow hull means it skims across the swift currents of the Chilliwack River, and the bilateral symmetry allows for an easy change in direction when navigating the meandering sloughs of the Fraser Valley. Beyond being an excellent representation of a uniquely-Stó:lõ type of watercraft, this particular canoe captured our interest because, almost one hundred years prior, Bill’s great-grandfather, Chief William Sepass (KHHalserten), carved it.

Earlier that week, Bill had told me about his great-grandfather carving the canoe from the trunk of a cedar tree that he had felled on the river bank. Bill also recollected stories that his grandfather told him about going out in the canoe with his own father (Bill’s great-grandfather) when himself was a young boy: “He’d talk about his sister riding in front of the canoe, at the bow, and he would be in the middle, and his dad would be paddling, and they would paddle downriver to Sumas Mountain…He said on this particular trip, they went fishing for oolichan, dipnetting. They made their way down midmorning or whatever and he talked about filling it up with oolichan right to the top, I mean right to the top. He would tell me this story and have a huge smile on his face as he would say ‘and my sister would always have a big smile on her face, and stick her hand out, touching the water, as we were going back upriver.’”


Hearing stories like this about the canoe’s history from a descendant of its creator really enlivened my research, impressing upon me a much greater appreciation for the powerful role that object interpretation can have in historical meaning-making, and vice-versa. There’s a popular adage that “objects don’t speak for themselves” – that object-based meaning-making greatly benefits from a contextualizing narrative. Making observations about the physical appearance of the canoe from different angles and appreciating its aesthetic qualities was one way to learn from it. Reading the literature on Salish canoes adds another dimension to this experience, as it allows the learner to consider the skillfulness of the carver and the technical qualities of the canoe. Finally, hearing about the significance of the canoe in terms of family history personalizes it in ways that visual observation and technical appreciation cannot do.


When we employ affective teaching strategies in our interpretations of historical objects, they become, like the Sepass canoe, points of connection between us and other people, people who lived in a different time, and maybe a different place. Learning about the human histories of objects reinforces their significance on an affective level, meaning that we don’t just think about their importance, but we feel it as well.



 The canoe is an integral part of Canadian history, but history students don’t often get to hear the personal histories of the makers of canoes. How can the voices of native experts and their recollections be included in history studies? What are some affective (not just effective) teaching strategies that would facilitate a deeper connection with historical objects and the people that made them?