These Canoes Carry Culture

A drum song leads the way, the drum carried and played by youths. Wayne Valliere (Lac du Flambeau Chippewa) follows, one hand gripping the birchbark canoe. But he doesn’t carry it alone. Nine adults and youths help carry the canoe, their hands touching it like a thousand other hands had when Wayne led the construction of the traditional Anishinaabe birchbark canoe.  

The group carries the canoe from the Lake Lac du Flambeau Public School through the sunshine to the shores of Lake Pokegama. Wayne had brought the canoe home from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus to northern Wisconsin, where its materials had been harvested. The Wiigwaasi-Jiimaan: These Canoes Carry Culture project was designed to teach Wayne’s culture to students.

An elder told Wayne that their people are not losing the birch trees. The birch trees are losing them. So Wayne works to build canoes the way his ancestors did.

But he and his brother have developed techniques to make a stronger canoe, just as Wayne works to build a stronger generation. The Anishinaabe are an innovative people. If his ancestors had a chainsaw to cut down a tree, they would have used that. If they had a chance for a college education, they would have done that. They may no longer work with stone tools, but they are still Anishinaabe. The canoes Wayne builds are built with the hands of a Native.

They arrive on the shores of Lake Pokegama, where all of Wayne’s canoes find their way to, a lake his people have launched into for generations before him, and will for generations after him. He launches the canoe for this generation. These students carry culture.

This is why Wayne teaches birchbark canoe building to young tribal members and why he apprentices young adults who are strong enough to carry on the tradition. He doesn’t know how many canoes he has left in him, but his knowledge is secure in the next generation.