Channel the Native American tradition through canoe making


One of the few Indigenous birchbark canoe canoe builders remaining in the United States, Northwestern University artist-in-residence Wayne Valliere shares traditional Native American art, unchanged for three millennia, with a group of students on the Evanston campus.

Valliere was first exposed to canoe making at the age of 14 and built his first canoe two years later. He learned the trade from his elders in his Lake Superior Flambeau Band of Ojibwe Lake. It is a skill that was once commonly passed down from generation to generation. But in the 1900s, knowledge began to run out quickly. Now Valliere says he’s one of the last six birchbark canoe builders among the Anishinaabeg people.

Valliere, whose native name is Mino-Giizhig, which means good heavens, strives to keep the canoe-building craft alive by sharing his skills and knowledge with Northwestern students. He is artist in residence at the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR). In recent weeks, with the help of students, Vallière has started building a traditional 16-foot birch bark canoe.

“At one time, every family knew how to build birch bark canoes. It was as common as people driving cars today, ”said Vallière.

Earlier this summer, a group of teachers, staff and students from the Northwest, along with members of Chicago’s urban Indigenous community, traveled to the Flambeau Lake Preserve in Valliere, in the north. from Wisconsin, to help put together the materials used to create the canoe – cedar for the ribs, spruce roots for the seams, pine pitch for sealing the seams and, of course, birch bark.

Only weak. Strong set

“The lesson is that birch bark is very fragile. It’s like paper. Cedar is also fragile. The roots can break. But when you put these pieces together, they get really strong, ”Vallière said of the canoe materials. “One teaching we use as Anishinaabe people is that we use things that alone are weak, but together are strong. These teachings are duplicated throughout nature for us. This is how we learned to live in this hostile environment.

“Our birch bark is so important because it signifies our identity,” said Vallière. “It’s our connection to our past. It is very important that we do not lose this profession because it connects us to our grandmother, the Earth.

Before harvesting trees for timber, the Ojibway must first ask the spirit of a cedar, which will provide the ribs for the canoe, if they can take it.

“We give that respect, and the tree allows us to harvest it well,” he said. “Birch bark is a great gift that was given to our tribe a long time ago; It was going to be a protector of our people and would serve us in a big way. “

The Ojibwe tribe used birch bark to build houses, cradles, coffins and more.

“We kept our history engraved on winter birch bark in pictograms that predicted our history and our way of life,” Vallière explained.

Education is essential for the future

Valliere said teaching Northwestern students about the rich history and cultural tradition of canoe building is essential for the future of the planet. “It is so important to raise awareness of our changing environment and to ensure that these environments are still there for the great grandchildren of Northwestern graduates and generations beyond so they can breathe fresh air. clean air and drink clean water. Without our environment, we have nothing.

It is so important to raise awareness of our changing environment and to ensure that these environments are always there for the great grandchildren of North West graduates and the generations beyond.

Artist in Residence Wayne Vallière

The canoe that Vallière is building at Northwestern is his 38th canoe. Once completed, the canoe will remain at Northwestern. Plans call for it to be launched on Lake Michigan at sunrise on Friday, October 29 following a drumming and prayer ceremony.

Valliere is a member of the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow 2020. When not teaching canoe making, he is found sharing other traditional skills, including beadwork, quillwork, and craft making. drums. He is also a respected singer and storyteller.

The Center for Native American and Indigenous Research was established in 2017 through the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. CNAIR is Northwestern’s primary institutional space dedicated to the promotion of scholarship, teaching, learning, and artistic or cultural practices related to Native American and Indigenous communities, priorities, histories and ways of life.

Land recognition

The Northwest Campus sits on the traditional lands of the Three Fires Council peoples, the Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Odawa, as well as the Menominee, Miami, and Ho-Chunk Nations. It was also a site of commerce, travel, gathering, and healing for over a dozen other native tribes and is still home to over 100,000 tribal members in the state of Illinois.

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