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Building a Canoe to Preserve Culture

Culture, in my own personal definition is ‘life as we know it,’ but it is also life as it once was long ago before you or I or even our parents walked the earth.  Although I am not of Native American descent, I have spent the last 18 months as a Tribal AmeriCorps Program member serving the Lac du Flambeau grade school. Part of my service there involves working closely with the Envision program. I think it would be best if Ariana, a seventh-grader in the program described it for you in her own words.

“Envision is a project-based learning system," she explains, "and it’s mostly to help kids who kind of need, instead of reading it out of a book, you would go out and do it hands-on, and to me, honestly that would be the way that I would learn the best."

I ask her, what are some of the things that you’ve done with the Envision program?

"Between this year and last year, we did do a lot of things that tie into our culture," Ariana says.  "We’ve made birch-bark baskets, we’ve been to art galleries and colleges, and recently we went to UW Madison.  We helped and learned from Wayne Valliere how to make an Ojibwe Anishinabe wiigwaasi jiimaan.

Which is?

"That is a birch-bark canoe.”

Wayne Valliere is an Ojibwe artist and cultural teacher from Lac du Flambeau. He spent some time last semester as an Artist in Residence at UW Madison working on a project called ‘These Canoes Carry Culture.'  Several of the Envision students were able to travel down to Madison and learn from Wayne as he constructed a traditional Ojibwe canoe.

“This is how we make all those ribs," Valliere says. "We split them out of the cedar like that.”

Wayne is well-known throughout his community as a true native craftsman.  He is always practicing some part of his culture—whether that is singing, maple sugaring, fishing, or simply speaking Ojibwemowin.  There is always a gleam in his eyes when Wayne speaks about his culture.

“I was born with a white streak in my hair, and my full-blooded Ojibwe grandmother told my mom that when I was born into the world, the spirit of an old Indian went in me," Valliere says.  "She said someday, ‘this one here is gonna know a lot about native culture,’ and for whatever reason I was drawn to that all my life.  Since my earliest memories, I always wanted to learn about native ways, our ways.”

“It’s awesome and fun because we get to learn how to make a canoe and see how it’s done step-by-step-by-step-by-step," says Lorinna, a sixth grader in the program.

After we returned to Lac du Flambeau, I decided to see how much she still remembered.

“First, you get the cedar from the tree," she begins. " Second, you split the cedar with the hatchet. Third, you soak the cedar in a lake for two weeks. Fourth, you steam the cedar in a steamer."

Describe it, I say.

"It holds a bunch of steam and gets really warm and you put the board it there," she says.  "Then you bend the cedar around a round piece of wood to give it the right shape." She continues, "Sixth, you put the cedar ribs in the canoe and number them. Seventh, you let it dry. Eighth, you cut off the ends and sand them.  Ninth, you wedge ribs into the canoe. And that’s how you do the ribs.”

The canoe was ready for its maiden voyage just one week after the ribbing was put in. We returned to Madison for the launching ceremony on Lake Mendota.

A crowd of about a hundred people gathered on the shore.  Many of these spectators were students from Lac du Flambeau who were very excited to watch the canoe meet the water.  It was a very windy day which made for a short trip, but the crowd cheered loudly as the canoe made its way through the water.

Aiyana, a sixth-grader in the Envision program, summed up the experience best.  I ask her why it's important to her that this experience is brought back to her community.  

"So that our little ones will learn and pass it on through generations and we’ll never leave it behind,” she says.

We forget sometimes, the life used to be and in the process we risk losing a piece of who we are.  For everyone who was involved in the project, ‘These Canoes Carry Culture’ was a way not only to remember but also to participate in the way it was once.

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