Birchbark Canoes Take Time, As Does Learning We’re Stronger Together

Sep 13, 2019

Birchbark canoes take a long time to make, but master artist Wayne Valliere from the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tells us that the process is an important one, and can serve as a metaphor for the value of teamwork.

Mackenzie Martin continues our We Live Up Here series with the story.

In early August, master artist Wayne Valliere started working with apprentices in Lac du Flambeau to build a birchbark canoe. This Saturday at the Wild Rice Festival in Lac du Flambeau, the traditional canoe will be officially launched.

The project was part of a larger grant from the First Nations Development Institute. In addition to the birchbark canoe project, another master artist – Greg Johnson – has been teaching the art of making cradleboards for babies.

The goal of both projects? To forge intergenerational learning.

“The authors of the grant had this vision of pairing together artists and knowledge holders with younger tribal citizens that are on the verge of wanting to learn more, but the connection just hadn’t happened yet,” says April Lindala, Giikendaasowin Learning Village Project Coordinator.

Lindala says she’s felt privileged to watch the learning happen between experienced tribal members and an up and coming generation who want to learn from them.

The construction of the canoe took place in master Ojibwe canoe builder Wayne Valliere’s garage. It was also live streamed on the Waaswaaganing Indian Bowl Living Arts and Culture Center Facebook page by Lindala and her friend and colleague, Michelle Reed.

“Because the public only sees the finished project at the launch this Saturday, they don’t necessarily know what’s behind it and what’s involved in it,” says Lindala. “Having the opportunity to do those live streamed videos allowed us to connect with the community in a really important way.”

Wayne Valliere says he and his brother, Leon Valliere, are two of the last five master Ojibwe canoe builders in the Midwest. He has now made over 30 canoes in different communities and he thinks something that’s important about this work is the way that it’s able to connect native people from different areas.

Video above: Birch Bark Canoe Building - Time-lapse by KBFT Radio

“That connection of the high-end canoe is one that the Anishinaabe brought from the Eastern Seaboard,” says Valliere. “It connects the Ottawas, the Potawatomis, and the Ojibwes together.”

How does it feel to be training a younger generation to do this? It makes him feel closer to his ancestors.

“It’s a responsibility of the older artists of my age to do this for the next generation so our culture lives on,” says Valliere. “By knowing where you’ve been, you’ll have a better understanding of where you’re going.”

Valliere believes that the more people they include in the building of the canoe, the more experiences they have represented, whether it’s experience in the forest or just the experience of the camaraderie of making the canoe.

“We try to have as many different hands touching these canoes as possible,” he says. “What happens is people imprint part of their life essences into these canoes. They put a few stitches in and those few stitches stay there for a long time… It becomes very powerful. ”

At the end of the hard work, they’re left with a beautiful birchbark canoe, but also a lesson. He suggests thinking of the entire process as a reminder of the benefits of teamwork.

By itself, the birchbark is weak, the spruce root that ties the whole thing together is fragile, and the pitch that seals the canoe is easily manipulated.

“But when you put all of these things together and they work in sync, the canoe becomes very strong, so strong that a person could take a hammer and beat on the side of one of these canoes and you’re not going to pierce a hole in it,” he says. “The teaching is when we stand alone, we are weak, but when we stand together, we’re very strong.”

Wayne Valliere’s most recent birchbark canoe will be launched this Saturday, September 14th at the Wild Rice Festival in downtown Lac du Flambeau at 1:00 p.m., followed by a powwow. Activities will be taking place at the Waaswaaganing Indian Bowl Living Arts and Culture Center all day long. The public is welcome.

Program support for stories like this on WXPR are provided by the Northern Arts Council. The above photo was coutesy of the artist, Wayne Valliere, but originally sourced online here via the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation. A number of videos were used in the audio version of the story from the Facebook page of the Waaswaaganing Indian Bowl Living Arts and Culture Center.