From our president
Birchbark canoes are considered an apex of Anishinaabe culture—aesthetically beautiful objects that for centuries represented one of the most sophisticated inland watercrafts in the world. Mino-Giizhig (Wayne Valliere) is one of only a handful of Native birchbark canoe builders today in the United States, and he has dedicated his life to carrying his culture forward through traditional arts.
Born with a white streak in his hair, it was said Valliere would be an elder before his time. According to Valliere’s grandmother, it signified that a “spirit of an old Indian” went into Valliere.
From a young age, Valliere took a great interest in Anishinaabe culture. In high school, he learned to paint scenes of traditional Ojibwe life. Over time, he became increasingly interested in producing the traditional arts that he was depicting in his paintings. He spoke with elders, like Joe Chosa, Marvin DeFoe, and Ojaanimigiizhig, to learn to construct the crafts he painted. Later, he began studying ethnographies and working with historical artifacts to reverse-engineer historical technologies and crafts.
Valliere has a vast artistic repertoire: beadwork, quillwork, regalia, drums, basketry, pipes, lodges, weaponry, hunting tools, and more. He is a respected singer and storyteller. But of all these talents, he is best known as a birchbark canoe builder, a craft he learned alongside his brother Leon.
Because of the craft’s complexity, it takes years to learn to independently build a canoe. One must have a deep understanding of the forest to locate, harvest, and process natural materials for the canoe: thick, pliable birchbark for the hull; straight-grained cedar for 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.
In older times, birchbark canoes were used for transportation, fishing, harvesting wild rice, and hunting. Canoes still are used in these ways. They are a way of life, and they represent a way of perceiving the world for Anishinaabe people. In the Ojibwe language, for example, the words for the bow and stern of a canoe—niigaan jiimaan and ishkweyaan jiimaan—also refer to the notions of the future and the past, conceiving of one’s passage through life as a journey by canoe.
Valliere, who works as an Ojibwe language and culture teacher at the Lac du Flambeau Public School, has been actively working with apprentices and other Native communities to help keep this important art alive. He was recognized for this work in 2015 with the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award from the First Peoples Fund, and a 2017 Mentor Artist Fellowship from Native Arts & Cultures Foundation. From the ceremonial harvest of birchbark and sacred cedar to the creative and innovative modifications to the process of their construction, these canoes carry culture and traditional knowledge. They carry identity and worldview. They carry the future of the Anishinaabe people.
By Tim Frandy, Western Kentucky University
Our Mission & Approach
A Message from Wayne
Niigaan means the future. And as Anishinaabi people, we are always looking towards the future, way far in the future. If you can imagine a baby sitting in a cradle board, way down the road, so far you can barely see it. That represents Ge Ondaadizijig, the ones who are not yet born. The things we do today, if it’s good enough for that baby way down there, it is good enough for us to do today.
With that said, we’re always thinking about the ones not yet born. And the great changes that have happened to the Anishinaabe, the history is their story. It isn’t our story. And how we have a story, we have a culture, we have a language, we have a worldview. And it’s beautiful.
And so the message and the mission is cultural, environmental, it’s about resiliency for the ones not yet born, Ge Ondaadizijig. In thinking about the tracks that we’re leaving, or where our tracks come from, a lot of times our elders tell us that we can know a lot about a tribe or a people by where their tracks come from.
And that’s the truth, because you only leave one track. There again, it’s thinking about Ge Ondaadizijig, our grandmother, the earth, and the importance of finding similarities in cultures, rather than differences, building upon them as a strong human tribe.
So Oshki Anishinaabe is about the new Indians. And guess what, those Indians aren’t born yet. That’s why we’re planting seeds through filming the cultural activities that happen throughout the year, the Industrial Year. It’s about planting seeds and new tracks to follow, tracks where everybody’s feet can fit in. And they all head in the same direction.
That one single powerful word, debwewin? Debwewin means to speak the truth, to live the truth, to act the truth, and to think the truth. All four things.