Keeping His Hands and Heart Busy

By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer, 2015 Artists in Business Leadership Fellow

Image by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie

Ronald J. Paquin (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa) is a self-taught traditional Native artist and birch bark canoe maker. In 2012, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe’s Ziibiwing Cultural Society, as well as a Native Arts and Culture Foundation National Fellowship. He has received 11 Michigan State University Master Artist Grants, multiple awards, fellowships and national recognition. Ron is an elder of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and 2007 Community Spirit Award honoree. He and his wife Molly live in Brevort, Michigan.

While working at the Museum of Ojibwa Culture, Ron Paquin decided to make a canoe. He studied books, talked to experienced people, and by trial and error, he said he managed to build a pretty bad canoe.

A few years later he tried again, this time with his carpenter brother-in-law. Through the Michigan State University Traditional Arts Program Master Artist/Apprenticeship grant, they built a 10-foot canoe.

So far, Ron has made over 50 canoes, won multiple awards, served in artist-in-residence programs, and has apprentices. His artwork — baskets, antler carvings, walking sticks, jewelry and more — is his therapy. He never sought recognition, never dreamed it. For Ron, his credibility comes by showing up, teaching, having fun, and being honest, respectful, compassionate. This enables him and others to achieve the status of artists, not solely crafters. The awards are an honor that add to the credibility both for those who see Ron’s work and for himself to believe that he is indeed an artist. He keeps it simple with, “Whatever your little heart wants you to do, that’s what you do.”

Ron teaches workshops every year throughout Michigan — porcupine quill boxes, birch bark containers — for schools, art galleries and tribal educational programs. He’s passing on his skills and traditional art forms, teaching students how to be proud of their Native heritage. He learns things from the woods where he gathers material and from every student he teaches. Every person is unique. When people take their hands off keyboards and phones, and journey into nature, the art they create is beautiful. Ron says, “Keep your hands busy, and your mind will be straight.” Coming from a challenging background, as described in his book (Not First in Nobody’s Heart: The Life Story of a Contemporary Chippewa), Ron knows many may not be scholars, but they can still be scholarly, respected, and develop their talents.

Ron is recovering from an illness, and with support from First Peoples Fund, he’s creating art again and preparing to open his own studio. It’s his lifetime dream. What his heart wants to do.

Ronald J. Paquin is a 2016 Artists in Business Leadership Fellow, 2009 Cultural Capital Fellow, and 2007 Community Spirit Award Honoree.