Master Canoe Builder Teaches Northwestern Students About Native American Tradition

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Artist-in-Residence Wayne Valliere to launch bark canoe into Lake Michigan ahead of Native American Heritage Month

EVANSTON, Ill. — One of the few Indigenous birchbark canoe canoe builders remaining in the United States, Northwestern University Artist-in-Residence Wayne Valliere shares traditional Indigenous art, unchanged for three millennia, with a group of students on the Evanston Campus.

Valliere was first exposed to canoe building at the age of 14. It is a skill that was once commonly passed down from generation to generation within his Ojibwe tribe. But in the 1900s, this knowledge began to disappear when Native Americans were forced to leave their ancestral homes. Now one of the last six Native American birchbark canoe builders, Valliere has dedicated his life to preserving his culture through traditional arts.

Earlier this summer, a group of professors, staff and students from the Northwest, along with members of Chicago’s urban Indigenous community, traveled to the Flambeau Lake Preserve in Valliere, in the north. from Wisconsin, to help put together the materials used to create the canoe – cedar for the ribs, spruce roots for the seams, pine pitch for sealing the seams and, of course, birch bark.

“Our birch bark is so important because it signifies our identity,” said Vallière. “It is our connection to our past. It is very important that we do not lose this profession because it connects us to our grandmother, the earth.”

“Birch bark is a great gift that was given to our tribe a long time ago,” said Vallière. “It was going to be a protector of our people and would serve us in a big way.”

Valliere says teaching Northwestern students about the rich history and cultural tradition of canoe building is essential for the future of the planet. “It is so important to raise awareness of our changing environment and to ensure that these environments are always there for the great grandchildren of Northwestern graduates and the generations beyond so they can breathe fresh air. clean air and drink clean water. Without our environment, we have nothing. ”

Valliere is a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow. He is currently Artist in Residence at Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR). Established in 2017 by the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, CNAIR is Northwestern’s premier institutional space dedicated to advancing scholarship, teaching, learning, and artistic or cultural practices related to communities, priorities, histories and Amerindian and Native ways of life.

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