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'These canoes carry our culture': Ojibwe artist recognized for lifetime achievement

Jul 10, 2020 01:21PM ● By Editor

Photos:  Green Bay Press Gazette


By Frank Vaisvilas of the Green Bay Press-Gazette - July 9, 2020


Wayne Valliere, whose Ojibwe name is Mino-Giizhig, had to turn to historical artifacts and ethnographies at the Smithsonian museums to help him revive some of the Anishinaabe culture that had been lost.

The 54-year-old member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa said he’s been learning the crafts of his ancestors since he was 14, after tribal elders in the 1970s encouraged him to learn what he could before it was lost forever to the people.

“It’s been a journey for me since I was a young child,” Valliere said. “There’s been great cultural loss. … My family was a traditional family who hunted and gathered. That’s how we ate.”

He started his artistic journey by painting scenes of traditional and historic Anishinaabe life and soon developed a passion to recreate some of the craftwork he was depicting on his canvas.

Valliere learned from elders, such as the late Joe Chosa and Ojaanimigiizhig, and started to create beadwork, pipes, weaponry and other crafts.

He even reverse-engineered artifacts he discovered at museums.

Valliere is best known for building traditional birchbark canoes.  “In a lot of my (painted) scenes there were birchbark canoes,” he said. Valliere said the technology is a great feat of Anishinaabe culture that Europeans had envied when they arrived on the continent. Weighing only 58 pounds, the canoes could easily be portaged over land to the next waterway to traverse the country.

Besides the craftsmanship to make the canoes being lost, Valliere remembers how the birch trees themselves also were being lost about 15 years ago.

He said a beetle was eating them alive.

“You could hear a rumble in the forest,” Valliere said.

He told his mentor, Chosa, that they were losing the trees, but Chosa said the trees were losing them.  Valliere explained how the trees were once very revered and cared for to make their greatest canoe technology, but now they were being used for much more menial purposes, such as making toilet paper and toothpicks.

He said the process of canoe building starts with the arduous work of searching for just the right birch tree of mature age and a certain length that can handle the right amount of stress.

Valliere said cedar roots for sewing the craft are then searched for, which can only be harvested at a different time of year than the birch.

Constructing more than 30 birchbark canoes so far, he is considered a master builder and said it can take about two months of total work to make just one.

Wayne Valliere of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa builds birchbark canoes in the traditional way

He is one of a handful of traditional canoe builders in the world, and Valliere said the canoes carry more than people now.

“These canoes carry our culture,” he said.

Valliere works as an Ojibwe language and culture teacher at the Lac du Flambeau Public School.

He also has provided clinics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other schools in the country.

Valliere, of course, wants to pass those traditions to his own children.

Tragically, his son Wayne Valliere Jr. was murdered in 2017 by men because they thought he was a police drug informant. Five men were charged in the murder. Valliere Jr. was 25 years old. A distraught Valliere said those men also took away one of the few people trying to revive the Anishinaabe culture.

“He was the sixth canoe builder in the Midwest,” he said. “Now, we have five.”

Valliere said his other son, Jephrey Valliere, just finished his first year of college and is looking to follow in his older brother’s footsteps in building canoes.

This year, Valliere was one of nine traditional artists from around the country selected for a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.  The lifetime honor recognition includes an award of $25,000.

Nominations for next year’s class of National Heritage Fellows are being accepted until July 31.

Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.

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