Wayne Valliere, Master Canoe Builder

Valliere joined CNAIR to build a birchbark canoe, sharing his talents and knowledge of Indigenous traditions with the wider community.

by Yonjoo Seo

Valliere sands the ribs of the canoe with a power sander.
Valliere teaches students to sand the ribs of the canoe to avoid splinters. (Connie Deng / 28 October 2021)

Wayne Valliere was about 13 years old when his school invited Native American elders from Wisconsin to introduce aspects of Indigenous culture to the non-Native teachers on his reservation. That’s when Valliere was introduced to the art of building birchbark canoes.

Watching two of these elders build a birchbark canoe model, Valliere said he was blown away by the complexity of the math and the construction.

“I just wanted to know more,” Valliere said. He read the few pieces of literature available on birchbark canoes and learned what he could from the canoe makers. One of the visiting elders became his mentor with whom he kept in contact for several years.

Decades later, Valliere himself is the person sharing the canoe-building skills with others. In October, Valliere joined Northwestern University’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research for a nearly three-week long event during which he built an Anishinaabe birchbark canoe.

As one of only roughly six Ojibwe master canoe builders alive, Valliere described the frightening reality in which the birchbark canoe tradition may be lost. One way he preserves it is through teaching apprentices. They joined him at Northwestern, and together, they shared canoe-building knowledge with the Northwestern and local Evanston community.

Valliere explained how Indigenous values are incorporated in every step of building the canoe, starting from harvesting the bark. He and his helpers gathered the bark in a way that did not harm the tree, and left a gift of asema, a ceremonial tobacco, each time they did. Valliere emphasized the importance of respecting Mother Earth and giving back to the environment.

“We just don't take [the bark],” Valliere said. “We ask for that permission … We still have to ask and we still have to say thank you. We still have to appreciate it.”

Moreover, the canoe is an important symbol of Indigenous resistance and perseverance in the face of cultural genocide the federal government has attempted throughout history.

“After 500 years of attempting to assimilate [us], they still haven't achieved it,” Valliere said. “We’re still here.”

After its construction, Valliere, his apprentices, volunteer helpers and members of the Northwestern community launched the birchbark canoe into Lake Michigan.

This has important historical context, as it is likely the first Anishinaabe canoe to be launched in the lake since the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, which ruled the Ojibwe, Ottawa and Potowatomi tribes cede land in Illinois and Wisconsin to the federal government.

“When I see that that canoe going into Lake Michigan,” Valliere said, “It's proving we're back home and we haven't gone anywhere.”

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