There were plenty of reasons for Wayne Valliere (Ojibwe) to be emotionally moved during his 2015 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award Ceremony on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in Wisconsin earlier this summer.
The Ojibwe artist was surrounded by community members, elders, friends, family and colleagues. He listened as First Peoples Fund staff highlighted his life’s work as an artist and culture bearer. And, his 96-year-old mentor made the trip to attend the honoring, taking the microphone to speak of Valliere’s dedication to his culture.
But it was a small gesture by First Peoples Fund staff that made Valliere sincerely reflect on the importance of his life’s work. As part of the ceremony, staff collected and displayed artwork by Native Wisconsin artists, which included a showcase of Valliere’s art.
“They had a watercolor I did in eighth grade,” he said. “I don’t know where they got it from.”
His work, often expressed in watercolors, has followed the trajectory of his life. “I was seeing different parts of my life,” he said, as he viewed the collection. “Our art is at a much deeper level. It’s our strength.”
Each piece, he said, represents part of his journey as a Native man and an artist. “We put strength and life into each piece,” he said. “It reflects a time in our life.”
The Community Spirit Awards are given every year to recognize the exceptional passion, wisdom and purpose the recipients bring to their art and the communities they serve. Every other year, they are presented in the communities in which the artists live.
“Wayne embodies what this annual honoring is all about,” said First Peoples Fund President Lori Pourier. “It’s his willingness to take a lifetime of knowledge and wisdom and walk alongside the people in his community to help usher in the next generation of Ojibwe culture bearers.”
It was at a young age that Valliere first fell in love with art. His father led him, encouraging Valliere to use recycled paper to draw. Later, he matched his love of art with his interest in Ojibwe traditions and culture. Today, he creates a variety of traditional art, including birch bark, canoes, drums, paintings, carvings, cradle boards, Ojibwe language materials, flutes, antler horn carvings, and spears and arrows.
But much of his time is spent working side-by-side with youth, including constructing traditional canoes and winter lodges, all in an effort to perpetuate traditions that have stood on the brink of extinction.
Valliere is a good example of what can happen when quality mentorship happens within a community, he said. “The things my elders taught me … they would say, ‘We’re putting this on your shoulders now,’” he said. “I’m at that point where I’m creating a lot of programs to pass that knowledge down.”
He is doing the same within his family. As the father of eight, and the grandfather of eight, Valliere has ample opportunities to shed light on the past. “It makes me feel really good,” he said. “I’m teaching my kids by example.”
Some parents and elders exhort the younger generations to learn by what is taught, not by what is demonstrated, he added. “I say, ‘Do as I do,’ and I feel comfortable with that,” he said. “I live by the spirit and my community sees me doing that.”
Valliere said he was humbled to receive the Community Spirit Award, and was honored to share the ceremony with others. “It’s very important to keep the culture, language and art moving forward for the future generation of our tribe so we never lose our identity,” he said.
Being in the spotlight is not something he’s used to, he said. “It’s not our way to pound our chest,” he said. “Humility is our way. But it was such a great honor.”
It’s not just the individual who benefits when Native art is recognized and celebrated. “I share this award with my community,” he said. “I feel it belongs to all of us.”