Canoe as Pedagogy

Indigenous knowledge production happens in various locations and through many methods. Indigenous scholars around the world are prioritizing the teachings of our ancestors and decentering Western frameworks. We are Rachel Cushman, an enrolled citizen of the Chinook Indian Nation, and Dr. Chance White Eyes, an enrolled citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. We both work within the academy, actively disrupting Western frameworks and colonial structures.

Even though academic titles and degrees have importance, they are not the only means of building expertise on Indigenous issues. Cushman does not yet have a formal degree; however, her cultural knowledge is integral to this publication. She is both an elected and hereditary leader in her community. She is the elected secretary-treasurer of the Chinook Indian Nation Tribal Council, a Chinook Canoe Family skipper, a lead puller, a lead dancer, and a 2022 NDN Collective Changemaker Fellow. She was selected and entrusted with these roles because of her decades of work protecting Indigenous lands, rights, and sovereignty. Cushman and Dr. White Eyes are partners with two sons, Kanim (canoe) and Isik (paddle). Canoe culture plays a vital role in our family’s lives. Our relationality and positionality are important because our lived experiences and relationships shape how we perceive and interact with the world around us.1

In this paper, we present canoe as pedagogy—a tool for anyone that teaches in formal settings. It is applicable in primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational settings, as well as in our everyday lives. Higher education, especially, has a lot to gain from utilizing Indigenous pedagogies. This pedagogical approach will help teachers, staff, and administrators incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing within institutional settings that are often hostile to Indigenous communities. We approach this work through a Chinookan decolonial and Indigenizing praxis, meaning Chinookan ways of knowing are actively engaged, and Western ways are decentered and dismantled.

There are many instances throughout our academic careers in which Western pedagogical approaches have caused us harm and traumatized us. We are not alone in this experience. The K–12 and post-secondary educational systems were not created with our cultures or values in mind. Instead of working toward collective knowledge, they are highly individualistic and competitive. We are expected to sink or swim. We argue that there is another way—an Indigenous way—to approach knowledge production.

Within academic settings, participants come from multiple locations that are complex and dynamic, and they gather in conversation about ideas and issues. Institutions are complex, and often there is a disconnect between what is happening in the classroom versus what is happening in administrative offices. To give participants an idea of our pedagogical approach, we will share stories and provide background context.

We belong to a canoe family. Canoe families vary amongst Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Some canoe families are large, while others are small. Some canoe families are formalized within tribal cultural programs, whereas others are made up of individual families. One constant is that canoes are respected members of every family. We belong to the Chinook Canoe Family, a canoe family that is made up of families and communities and is sponsored by the Chinook Indian Nation.

There are many roles within a canoe family. Each canoe family determines how these roles are filled, but individuals often fill more than one role depending on the day. Those paddling in the canoe are called pullers. Lead pullers set the pace and everyone else replicates their movements. Each consecutive bench is just as important as the lead. Collectively, the pullers move the canoe forward. Skippers guide the canoe family and steer the canoe. They determine the routes, whether to hug the shore or move out into open waters. They are responsible for the wellness of the pullers and the community. The skipper’s role does not end when the canoe reaches land or when the trip ends. A skipper’s role is constant.

The support boat ensures the safety of the canoe. It carries extra pullers, and it supplies and helps the canoe if there are hazards. Not every canoe family has their own support boat. Some support boats are shared amongst families. The ground crew is another integral role. They set up and break down camp, shop for and prepare food, track canoe progress from land, transport those unable to participate on the water, and act as ambassadors for the family at host sites. Every role is as important as the next. Rachel has filled nearly every role in the canoe family. Even though she is a skipper, she still needs help from other skippers.

When schools reopened after the COVID-19 shutdown, our children had a hard time readjusting to the classroom. One of them struggled more than the other. He acted out, refused to do work, and expressed his frustrations in unsafe ways. We worked with the teachers, the principal, the school counselor, and other support staff, but that didn’t prevent our child from getting sent home. We struggled with him, so we called on one of our canoe family skippers for help. Uncle Tony talked to our son. He talked to him about the rules of the canoe and our ancestors’ teachings. Our son talked to him about his fears and frustrations. Uncle Tony gave him advice and tools for managing his frustrations. When he returned to school, we spoke with the staff about his conversation with Uncle Tony. For the remainder of the year, he had no more incidents. It takes a tribe to raise our children.

For thousands of years, our people have traveled the Columbia River Basin, adjacent seacoast, and the Salish Sea in traditional Chinookan-style canoes. For decades we have traveled this way on Tribal Journeys, which play an important role in the resurgence of Indigenous culture upon the landscape after decades of erasure and criminalization of Indigenous peoples and lifeways. As canoes and canoe families travel to predetermined locations, they stop at host villages. At host locations, food, songs, and dances are shared. A central aspect of Tribal Journeys is the cultural protocols associated with the Indigenous peoples of the region. Protocols are the rules and ways of behaving that come from the past that guide life in the present, and if followed, lead to cultural strength, resilience, and well-being.2 The organizers of “Paddle to Seattle” created the Ten Rules of the Canoe to outline expectations for participation and to uplift Indigenous protocols.

The Ten Rules are as follows:

“Rule One: Every stroke we take is one less we have to make. Keep going! Even against the most relentless wind, somehow a canoe moves forward. This mystery can only be explained by the fact that each pull forward is real movement and not a delusion.

Rule Two: There is to be no abuse of self or others. Respect and trust cannot exist in anger. It has to be thrown overboard so that the sea can cleanse it. It has to be washed off the hands and cast into the air so that the stars can take care of it. We always look back at the rip tides we pulled through, amazed at how powerful we thought those dangers were.

Rule Three: Be flexible. The adaptable animal survives. If you get tired, ship your paddle and rest. If you get hungry, put it on a beach and eat a few oysters. If you can’t figure out one way to make it, do something new. When the wind confronts you, sometimes you are supposed to go the other way.

Rule Four: The gift of each enriches all. Every story is important. The bow, the stern, the skipper cannot move without the power puller in the middle—everyone is part of the journey. The elder who sits in her cedar at the front, singing her paddle song, prays for us all, the weary paddler resting is still ballast. And there is always that time when the crew needs some joke, some remark, some silence to keep going. The least likely person provides.

Rule Five: We all pull and support each other. Nothing occurs in isolation. In a family of the canoe, we are ready for whatever comes. The family can argue, mock, ignore each other, at its worst, but that family will never let itself sink. The canoe that lets itself sink is certainly wiser never to leave the beach. When we know that we are not alone in our actions, we also know we are lifted up by everyone else.

Rule Six: A hungry person has no charity. Always nourish yourself. The bitter person, thinking that sacrifice means self-destruction, shares mostly anger. A paddler who doesn’t eat at the feast doesn’t have enough strength to paddle in the morning. Take that sandwich they throw at you at 2:00 AM! The gift of who you are only enters the world when you are strong enough to own it.

Rule Seven: Our experiences are not enhanced through criticism. Who we are, how we are, what we do, why we continue, all flower in understanding. The canoe fellows who are grim go one way. Some men and women may sometimes go slow, but when they arrive they can still sing. And they have gone all over the sea, in the air with the seagulls, under the curve of the wave with the dolphin and down to the whispering shells, under the continental shelf. Withdrawing the blame acknowledges how wonderful a part of it all everyone in reality is.

Rule Eight: The journey is what we enjoy. Although the state is exciting and the conclusion gratefully achieved, it is that long, steady process we remember. Being part of the journey requires great preparation. Being done with a journey requires great awareness. Being on the journey, we are much more than ourselves. We are part of the movement of life, we have a destination, and for once, our will is pure, our goal is to go on.

Rule Nine: A good teacher always allows the student to learn. We can berate each other, try to force each other to understand, or we can allow each paddler to gain awareness through the ongoing journey. Nothing sustains us like that sense of potential; that we can deal with things. Each paddler learns to deal with the person in front, the person behind, the water, the air, the energy, the blessing of the eagle.

Rule Ten: When given a choice at all, be a worker bee—Make Honey!”3

On Tribal Journeys, canoe families are expected to adhere to the rules of the canoe. There are also other protocols that communities are expected to follow. These rules and journey protocols ensure that Tribal Journeys is a respectful and safe environment. If individuals or families cannot respect the rules and protocols, they are asked to leave. No one is exempt from the rules.
Several years ago, we witnessed hereditary and elected leaders from across nations exile a skipper because several women stepped forward saying that he had caused them harm. We have witnessed individuals sent home because of continuous fighting and other harmful behaviors.

In our Chinook Canoe family, we follow the Ten Rules, Tribal Journey protocols, plus Chinookan protocols that have been passed down from generation to generation. One important rule from our community is ntsayka wawa khapa ntsayka—we communicate with one another. We gather regularly to communicate our needs, struggles, successes, frustrations, joy, and more. On Tribal Journeys we do not go to sleep with anger in our hearts. We must travel in the canoe with łush tәmtәm—a good heart.

“Does anyone have anything that they would like to share or anything they need to get off their chest?” we ask at the beginning of each family meeting.

“That was the best pull ever! It was hard, but I’ve never laughed so much. Did you see those whales come up next to the canoes? I can’t wait for tomorrow.” A share can be celebratory.

“I am feeling frustrated that only two people helped break down and set up camp today.” Usually, frustrations are easily fixed.

“I am disappointed in our community. When I entered the camp, folks were sitting around and there was trash all over the place. We are stewards of the land and ambassadors of our people.” Sometimes we just need reminders.

“I need help. I am feeling this way.” We help and support each other when asked.

“I felt unsafe when…” Other concerns are more serious. We address all issues right away.

We suggest kәnim tilixam chaku-kәmtәks or a Canoe Family Education Model for the classroom. tilixam isn’t the nuclear family; it is the community that we are raised in. tilixam is the extended family and the community we call home. Learning happens when we are in sync with one another. When we openly communicate about our strengths, weaknesses, frustrations, struggles, and successes.

This is how we frame every class: using the rules of the canoe from Tribal Journeys and protocols from our community. To be critical about social issues, we must draw from our own experiences and value the experiences of those around us, especially when those experiences are different. This means that we will not always agree, and that is okay. We believe in constructive controversy, so long as we can be respectful to one another.

The students and classroom guests will be pullers in our classes and are expected to contribute through critical discussion. In doing this, we will be able to engage with these issues with a diverse array of tools. We, the teachers, instructors, and professors, are the skippers. We guide students in and out of the classroom, but our role is no more important than the students. We learn from them as well. We remind students of the rules and ensure that classrooms are safe environments for learning. Administrators and support staff are the ground crew and support boat, making our work possible. They work with the teachers and students to make sure their needs are met. When everyone is in communication, working collectively, we can be successful. In the canoe, no one person or role is better or more important than another. The skipper, the pullers, the elder sitting at the bow, and the ground crew are all integral. Everyone contributes, and every person’s story is important. The same goes for educational settings.

This model is different from more traditional formal educational settings, wherein the instructor/professor is typically viewed as the primary holder of knowledge.

Especially in post-secondary institutions, it is often presumed that the professor will lecture at the students, using the “Banking Model” to quote Paulo Freire.4 In this model, students become receptors of information fed to them by the professor and do not necessarily connect the information to their lives, hindering intellectual growth. Students are often encouraged to work independently and are not necessarily encouraged to work as a group or as a family. This goes against the idea of the classroom as a canoe, where everyone’s experiences and opinions are valued. Everyone’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health is valued, as is everyone’s intellectual growth.

The physical space is also treated differently using canoe pedagogy. A canoe is not just a static object. It is a member of the canoe family. If you want the canoe to take care of you, you should treat it with the same respect as anyone in the canoe. Our classroom settings are treated in the same capacity. If in a formal classroom setting, we make sure the space is clean and functional before the class begins, and we make sure to clean the space afterward. The same goes for non-Western classroom spaces. The land and waterways can be classrooms.

Dr. White Eyes has used canoe pedagogy for the past three years at Southern Oregon University, where he teaches nine to ten classes per year. On the first day of every class, he goes over his background, areas of expertise, and class expectations, which includes going over the rules of the canoe. This approach to teaching has been embraced and celebrated by a vast majority of students who take these courses and understand the protocols. Dr. White Eyes’ course evaluations are consistently in the “exceptional” category, and student testimonials allude to enjoying the inclusive nature of the class and participating in discussions with people from a variety of backgrounds.

Educational institutions can greatly benefit from canoe pedagogy and kәnim tilixam chaku-kәmtәks. Incorporating canoe culture into classrooms and institutions actively prioritizes Indigenous knowledge production in spaces that can otherwise be hostile. Including the pedagogical approach is only the first step, but must also decenter and dismantle harmful Western structures that don’t serve the collective.

Rachel Cushman is presently working toward a Doctorate of Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies from the University of Oregon while serving the Chinook Indian Nation and Indian Country in multiple capacities.

Dr. Chance White Eyes received a Doctorate of Critical and Socio-Cultural Studies in Education from the University of Oregon and is currently a tenure-track faculty member at Southern Oregon University in Native Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.


1. Margaret Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021).
2. Rachel Cushman, Jon Daehnke, and Tony Johnson, “This Is What Makes Us Strong: Canoe Revitalization, Reciprocal Heritage, and the Chinook Indian Nation,” in The Politics of the Canoe, ed. B. Erikson and S. Krotz. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2021), 48–71; David Forlines, “Tales of the Canoe Nation,” in Oceanedge: The Journal of Applied Storytelling 3 (1995), 12.
3. American Friends Service Committee, eds. Tribal Journeys Handbook and Study Guide. Cedar Media.
4. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970).