Wayne Valliere | Lac du Flambeau, WI
The spirit of an old Indian went in me when I was born, and because of that, I will always be drawn to Native culture and Native ways. I live up on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Indian Reservation in north central Wisconsin. As I grew up, I was exposed to a lot of Ojibwe culture. My earliest memory was seeing Native art when I went with my parents to visit with elders—mawadishiwewin (visiting.) During these visits, we drank a cup of tea, had something to eat, and I got to see the different kinds of Native art these elders created. From hide tanning to canoe building to basketry, to quillwork, to sugaring to ricing, it was all Native art. My parents were involved in those things and they exposed me and my siblings to it at a young age.
Because I was exposed to Native art and because of our ancestral teachings, I have a connection to the earth and art at a deeper level. The natural materials I use have to be prayed for and thanked and told what they’re going to be used for.
Canoe building was part of a long journey for me. I was exposed to canoe building in seventh grade, at the Lac du Flambeau Public School. Marvin DeFoe, from Red Cliff, was just starting out as a young canoe builder. I saw the canoe he was building, and I was just drawn to it. Every day I watched as it was being built, and then I got exposed to some other elders who built canoes. When I was sixteen, I said, “I’m going to try to build my own.” I worked with a neighbor kid and he helped me build it. He was twelve years old. I was even mentoring back then.
We got the materials for the canoe in the backyard of my parents’ home. My parents really took pride in their yard, their roses, bushes, and cedar trees. But they encouraged me and let me make a big mess in the backyard—wood chips and roots laid all over their yard. I actually put together my first birchbark canoe there. It was a ten-foot canoe. We took it down to the lake and paddled in it for a little while and it floated. It was very tippy. You had to part your hair right down the middle, otherwise, the canoe would flip over on you. But it worked! So, that was my start.
Then my brother Leon started building canoes. I worked with him and we built canoes the way our ancestors did. But we also developed modern techniques to make a stronger canoe. Then I didn’t build for maybe ten years. What started me getting back into it was something my elder, Joe Chosa (Ozaawaabek) said to me. He’s passed into the spirit world now, but he was my mentor and teacher. There was a time in the 1990s when an insect was attacking the birch trees. Everywhere you looked, the tops of the birch trees were dying. We were out harvesting rice, and I pointed it out to him. I said, “Look, Ozawaabek, we’re losing our birch trees.” “Gaawiin (no)”, he said, “We’re not losing our birch trees. Our birch trees are losing us.”
He went on to explain, “In the time of my grandmother, birchbark was very revered. It was given to us by Winnaboozhoo (the master of life for the Ojibwe) and it was said that birchbark was going to be a protector and serve the Anishinaabe, our people, from the cradleboard to the grave. We built our canoes out of it. We built our homes out of it, our wigwams, our lodges. We even kept our history scratched on birchbark.” “But today, our birch,” he said “is being used for toothpicks and toilet paper. The birch trees are looking around saying ‘Where’s the Anishinaabe? Why am I being used for these things?” That’s when I realized I was going to help bring canoe culture back. So, I started building canoes again working with apprentices to teach them the craft. Birchbark canoes are the apex of our culture. Today we have three canoe builders. So, it’s coming back.
When you go out on the water and paddle in your canoe, and it’s so quiet, and it floats like a leaf, and it turns on a dime, and it’s lightweight. When a little bit of water splashes in it under the cedar on the ribs and you get that really sweet cedar smell, it’s a very pungent good smell, you feel close to your ancestors. You look around, and you’re in the same exact vehicle that your ancestors five hundred years earlier paddled those lakes with, and it takes you back to that point and what they felt like in a birchbark canoe. This experience is what keeps me building ‘em every time.
You need a deep understanding of the forest to locate, harvest, and then process the materials into the various canoe components. Thick birchbark is needed for the hull; straight-grained cedar for gunwales, ribs, and sheathing; spruce roots for stitching and lashings; and pine pitch, which is mixed with oak ash and deer tallow, to tar the stitching.
My first major commission came from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. My good friend Tina Kuckkahn invited me to the World Canoe Journey, a tribal canoe journey that is a revival of our traditional mode of transportation. Families paddle their canoes down the northwest coast, pick up canoes from other tribes along the way, and have ceremonies with each tribe. My sons and I built a canoe to represent the Anishinaabe. It’s a really cool event.
We built all the components here, shipped them out to the northwest, and put the canoe together out there. It was probably the first time in a long, long time that a birchbark canoe has been in that part of the Pacific Ocean. By the way, pitch holds up in saltwater.
So that was my start. All of a sudden, the social media stuff started to happen. People were documenting my canoe building and it started to spread to different places. Then I started to go to communities, I built one at Red Lake, Minnesota. We went over to Indian Community School in Milwaukee and built a canoe. I did a residency at UW-Madison. We built a canoe bringing our grade school kids from the Lac du Flambeau School into the process, exposing them to a major university, which now some of our students are attending. I’m pretty proud about that.
I had a young man, Lawrence Mann, come to me about seven years ago. He was in a part of his life where he had a really hard time. He came to me with tobacco and a gift, and said to me, “I want to learn my culture. I’ve been living in the city. I want to learn my culture.” So I thought, well if he comes back that will show me that he’s interested. Lawrence came back day after day after day to the point where he was bugging me. So, I said, “All right, Ok. What do you think about building a winter lodge?” He helped me build the first winter lodge, in a style that hadn’t been built here for 500 years. The Wisconsin Arts Board helped us, and it was a really good project. Our journey went from building the lodge to canoe building—Lawrence built eight canoes with me. He’s now a builder. I’m really happy with that. Then Lac du Flambeau started an apprenticeship program and right now I mentor six young people. And they’re all doing well in their life. The nucleus of all of it is our inwewin, our language. Culturally we’re still very rich in Lac du Flambeau. But the part we lost is Anishinaabemowin, all the associated language that goes with building canoes. So that’s how I teach canoe building—through culture.
After going through all of the seasons and gathering all the materials which takes ningo biboon (one year), you start to process them, which takes weeks. Then the actual building happens in days. It all leads up to the maiden voyage when you first put some tobacco out and you thank all the different manidoo (spirits): the spirits of the spruce, the birch, the white pine, the red pine, and the cedar.
The comradery and the friendships that are made around birch bark canoe building all get incorporated into each canoe. The magical things that happen with people—the healing, the friendships, and the memories that are made, morphs its own spirit and its own story. This makes it special because each birchbark canoe represents life–people put their life and their time into it. You could have been somewhere else, but you were there touching that wood. Trying to make that wood the best it can be, talking to the bark so it won’t crack on you. All kinds of stuff. And the bumps and the bruises you get along the way, well that’s put in there too. And then you get to paddle it. The best way I can explain it is probably in my language. It would be maamakaadendam (amazing), it’s an amazing feeling. The birchbark canoe bow is called niigaan-jiimaan. The stern is called ishkweyaang-jiimaan. When you’re paddling with the bow, we call it the future. And the stern is the past. So, when you’re paddling it, you’re always going into the future. You look back at your water trail. That’s the past. But in the canoe, you’re always looking toward the future. And that’s a teaching for Anishinaabe people. No matter what, keep moving to the future. Keep pushing forward.
This story was produced by Carol Amour. Wayne Valliere was awarded the 2020 National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. You can watch this Wisconsin Life video of Wayne building a canoe.