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Channeling Native American tradition through canoe making

Students learn from master canoe builder and artist-in-residence Wayne Valliere

One of only a handful of Native birchbark canoe builders remaining in the U.S., Northwestern University artist-in-residence Wayne Valliere is sharing the traditional Native art, unchanged in three millennia, with a group of students on the Evanston campus.

Valliere was first exposed to canoe building at the age of 14.  It is a skill that was once commonly passed from generation to generation among his Ojibwe tribe. But by the 1900s, that knowledge started to disappear as Native Americans were forced to leave their ancestral homes. Now among six remaining Native American birchbark canoe builders, Valliere has dedicated his life to preserving his culture through traditional arts. (Read more information on Valliere's goals)

Earlier this summer, a group of Northwestern faculty, staff and students, along with members of the urban Native community in Chicago, traveled to Valliere’s Lac du Flambeau Reservation in northern Wisconsin to help gather materials used to create the canoe  — cedar for the ribs, spruce roots for the stitching, pine pitch to seal the seams and, of course, birchbark. 

“Our birchbark is so important because it signifies our identity,” Valliere said. “It’s our connection to our past. It’s very important that we don’t lose this craft because it connects us to our grandmother, the earth.” 

“Birchbark is a great gift that was given to our tribe a long time ago,” Valliere said. “It was going to be a protector of our people and would serve us in a great way.” 

Valliere says teaching Northwestern students this rich history and the cultural tradition of canoe building is critical to the future of the planet. “It’s so important to bring awareness to our changing environment and to make sure those environments are still here for Northwestern graduates’ great grandchildren and generations beyond so that they will be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water. Without our environment, we have nothing.” 

Valliere is a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow. He is currently Artist-in-Residence with Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR). Established in 2017 through the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, CNAIR is Northwestern’s primary institutional space dedicated to advancing scholarship, teaching, learning and artistic or cultural practices related to Native American and Indigenous communities, priorities, histories and lifeways.

 

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Canoe builder, Wayne Valliere sharing his canoe-building knowledge (Credit: Northwestern University)
Canoe builder, Wayne Valliere sharing his canoe-building knowledge (Credit: Northwestern University)