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The lessons a canoe can teach about Indigenous history and culture

Birch bark canoe built at Northwestern has a new home to inspire future generations

A birch bark canoe (wiigwaasi-jiimaan), built under the leadership and direction of master canoe builder Wayne Valliere (Ojibwe) in 2021, has been given a new permanent home at the Segal Visitors Center on the Northwestern University campus.

Placed prominently in the southeast corner of the lobby, the canoe gives visitors and members of the campus community the ability to see and touch what Native Americans regard as a relative — a living and breathing entity.

On May 5, on what turned out to be a sunny Friday morning and before being placed in the Segal lobby, Forrest Bruce and Kayla Giger — both Ojibwe and current Northwestern graduate students — took the canoe out, rowing on the choppy waters of Lake Michigan. The journey commemorates a time some 400 years ago when vessels like this were commonplace on the lake and area rivers — and native tribes — known as the Three Fires Confederacy, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and the Odawa — called the land on which Northwestern sits home.

The hope is that the canoe will be more than just a work of art to the community and instead inspire teaching and learning from an Indigenous perspective.

Jasmine Gurneau, director of Native American and Indigenous Affairs at Northwestern, says the canoe re-dedication launches what will become an annual celebration.

“This wiigwaasi-jiimaan exemplifies the present life and thriving of traditional practices in contemporary times and brings the practice of land acknowledgement to light within a meaningful community participation and partnership,” Gurneau said. “Having the canoe prominently displayed will help highlight Northwestern’s Indigenous efforts and commitment to Indigenous peoples.”

Northwestern’s land acknowledgment: In the spirit of healing, Northwestern acknowledges and honors the Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi), Odawak (Odawa) and Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) Nations, the original people of the land Northwestern University occupies.