By Tim McNicholas
CHICAGO (WBBM) — There are only a few people left in the U.S. who know the Native American skill of building birch bark canoes.
One of them is currently an artist in residence at Northwestern University—teaching students his skills and reviving a tradition that’s spanned three millennia.
Morning Insider Tim McNicholas reports his lesson goes far beyond canoe building.
When Wayne Valliere was just a boy, he learned about the identity and history of his Ojibwe tribe.
“My native name is Mino-giizhig. It means good sky,” he said. “I’ll say it like our elders, say it: by knowing where you’ve been, you’ll have a better understanding where you’re going in life.”
Those elders taught him the skill of birch bark canoe building, once passed from generation to generation along the Great Lakes.
It’s a tradition that started to disappear as Native Americans were forced to leave their ancestral homes.
“So we brought our canoe culture back,” Valliere said.
Now, he’s brought that culture from his home in Wisconsin to Northwestern University, where he’s building a canoe in front of students and other spectators.
His apprentices are hard at work with him. The lessons they teach are not just about woodwork—but life and environmental challenges.
“Cedar wood breaks…very easy to break,” Valliere said. “All these things is very weak, but when they’re put together they become strong.”
“The teaching is: alone, we’re nothing. But together, we’re strong. So the importance of working together is the teaching,” he added. “Our grandmother, the Earth, isn’t doing so well right now.”
“Standing together. We all need to pitch in and make sure our grandmother earth is healthy,” he said.
The plan is to launch the canoe at sunrise on Oct. 29, off the shores of Northwestern’s campus in Evanston.
The public is invited to attend.
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