Martor No. 22 / Year 2017

Kayaktivism: The Anthropology of Protest, Craft, and the Imagination

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Author: William Westerman

About the author:

William Westerman
Assistant Professor, PhD., Department of Sociology and Anthropology, New Jersey City University, Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.
E-mail: westerman22 at gmail dot com

Pages: 109-126.

Keywords: creative forms of protest, nonviolent civil disobedience, social activism, kayaktivism, tradition, craft, the David-and-Golitah motif.


This article concerns the re-fashioning of traditional small, hand-powered boat craft – namely canoes and kayaks – into instruments of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. This has recently been termed “kayaktivism” by participants in these actions. The protests can take the form of civilian blockades or sites for making statements of opposition, whether in visual or verbal form, or both. The most common targets originally were weapons shipments, but since the turn of the millennium such protests focus on fossil fuels and nuclear power vs. sustainability as an ethic. Five examples of this are briefly sketched: 1) canoe blockades of Pakistani weapons shipments leaving the northeastern U.S. during the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971, 2) the Bay Area Peace Navy in San Francisco that protested militarism, nuclear power, and weapons shipments to Central America, 3) the South Pacific Climate Warriors canoe action in Newcastle, Australia to blockade and protest coal shipments, 4) actions in the northwestern U.S. to block a Shell Oil vessel from drilling in the Arctic Ocean, and 5) river protests in New Jersey, U.S.A., against a new power plant and a natural gas pipeline under the Delaware River. The conclusion of the paper considers this in the context of other civil disobedience, and why the image of the canoe or kayak is so effective, including the centrality of the David and Goliath motif. Finally, it looks at how protesters use, adapt, and build upon canoe traditions and the relationship between traditional craft and value systems.

How to cite this article: Westerman, William. 2017. “Kayaktivism: The Anthropology of Protest, Craft, and the Imagination.” Martor 22: 109-126.