Wayne Valliere's (Ojibwe) father used to cut paper grocery bags open and draw on them, making a cheap canvas out of recycled material—and planting a seed in his son's mind that art could take you anywhere.
"He would start drawing scenes of trapping, hunting and fishing," said Valliere. "He would say, 'Where do you want to go tonight, son?'"
With those memories still fresh in his mind, Valliere's interest in the cultural and historical traditions of the Ojibwe people grew. Living in north-central Wisconsin on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation, Valliere spent time with Elders learning a variety of art forms and to this day is able to create dozens of traditional items, including birch bark, canoes, drums, paintings, carvings, cradle boards, Ojibwe language materials, flutes, antler horn carvings, and spears and arrows.
"My fascination with the culture started (early)," he said. "I've spent my life doing these things. The greatest blessings I have as a Native artist is having the opportunity to be in the forest harvesting materials. It keeps me in balance as well as remembering the teachings of my Elders."
Valliere, who is a teacher in the Wisconsin public school system and founder of the Ojibwe Winter Games, has been named a 2015 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award honoree from First Peoples Fund. The honors are given every year to recognize the exceptional passion, wisdom and purpose the recipients bring to their art and the communities they serve. This year's honoring ceremonies are taking place around the country, right in the communities where the artists live and work.
Valliere said he is honored to be included in this year's group of recipients. "It makes me feel good and lets other Native people realize what art can do," he said.
Valliere is currently working on a project called "Carrying the Culture Forward." He will help students construct a 14-foot birch bark canoe in the school, similar to a canoe he recently helped students and the community build at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Tom Loeser, professor and chair of the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said working with Valliere in building the canoe was the most exciting and rewarding project he had worked on in his 23 years at the university.
He described Valliere as a "passionate, intense and caring teacher," and said he was a "fabulous educator and ambassador for the Native community."
The canoe, which was built with the hands of dozens of students and brought together hundreds of people in the community, is now housed in a lakefront dormitory on the shores of Lake Mendota.
Valliere's expertise extends well beyond canoes. He also recently led students in an endeavor to finish an Ojibwe winter lodge, a nine-month project that taught the students hands-on experience of how Elders used to construct the structures.
"It's amazing," Valliere said. "We brought history back to life."
They stayed in the lodge overnight when the temperatures dipped below freezing and discovered they were successful in the construction process. "It was beautiful," Valliere said. "It was a journey, an adventure and identity for our young people."
It all adds up to his mission—to breathe life back in to the traditions his ancestors lived by.
"I work a lot with young people to not add or take anything away from our traditions, so everything stays pure," he said.
His community struggles with the same historical trauma many Natives experienced, Valliere said, and it lives on in the younger generations. "The detriment done to our tribe due to colonization left a lot of identity loss for our young people," he said. "For the last five decades, we've relied on help from the outside for our social problems. The answer lies within our culture."
He has seen positive changes in his community, including a higher high school graduation rate, more sobriety, and more students enrolling in college.
"We're teaching our next generation who they are," he said.
Valliere said it's an honor to be part of that work.
"I was born with a white streak in my hair and my grandmother told my mom I was a reincarnated Elder and I would carry the torch forward," he said. "I've done my best to do that. When I see young people get on the right path with culture, it's very gratifying. I feel like my life's work has meant something."