The intergenerational, intercultural, environmental arts project Wiigwaasi-Jiimaan: These Canoes Carry Culture will reach its completion with a public canoe launching, Thursday, November 21, at 3:00 pm on the shores of Lake Mendota, beside the UW Memorial Union at the future site of the UW Alumni Park. Members of the public will be able to view the canoe, meet its makers, and observe and participate in the ceremonies that prepare it for its maiden voyage. Free event.
The innovative project brought Wayne Valliere (Mino-giizhig), of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians to the UW campus to construct a traditional Ojibwe birchbark canoe, a tool and object of beauty known in Ojibwe language as wiigwaasi-jiimaan. Mr. Valliere is an artist and Ojibwe language and culture educator at Lac du Flambeau Public School on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation in northern Wisconsin. His residency in the Art Department began in September, but the harvesting and preparations for the canoe began as early as last spring. The canoe launching will represent the culmination of hundreds of hours of careful preparation and work.
Wayne Valliere sees the canoe project as a way to pass on Ojibwe heritage to a new generation. Valliere first began learning about canoe building from an Ojibwe elder when he was only fourteen years old. His fascination with the art and ingenuity of his ancestors led to a lifelong passion to preserve and pass on the traditions of his people. “I’ve made my life about keeping our traditional ways, and bringing back our traditional ways, so that they will be a part of our tribe’s life in coming generations. “ At the same time, Wayne has been eager to share his people’s traditions with the many people who visit the wood shop daily to check on the progress of the canoe or who follow the process via the Internet. As he notes: “A lot of people from a lot of different cultures have helped on this canoe, and that is important.”
Central to the project was the involvement of youth from the Lac du Flambeau Reservation as well as from the Goodman Community Center in Madison. Students helped in the harvest and processing of the materials for the canoe—white cedar, birch bark, spruce roots, and pine pitch—and assisted Mr. Valliere and University of Wisconsin students and faculty in the canoe’s construction at the Wood Shop of the University of Wisconsin Art Department, on the top floor of the Humanities Building on the UW campus.
Tom Loeser, chair of the Art Department, was pivotal in planning and realizing Mr. Valliere’s work here in Madison. With the help of the Windgate Foundation, the Art Department established a series to bring practicing artists to the Wood/Furniture Shop to share their skills with department students and staff. Mr. Valliere is one of ten such visitors brought to campus over the last several years. Loeser states: “We see the residency as a way to highlight alternative ways and understandings of materials and ways to generate form. Having visitors like Wayne on campus enhances our curriculum by exposing students to novel ways of generating objects, ways that they may not have encountered before.” Both graduate and undergraduate art students have participated in the harvesting and construction process.
Tim Frandy, outreach specialist at the UW Collaborative Center for Health Equity has also been closely involved in the project from its outset. According to Frandy: “This project brings the University and Native community members together under the common cause of improving the health and well-being of youth. Not only does the project offer the youth who are involved a healthy dose of physical exercise, it also advances students’ cultural and social well-being. It encourages them to participate in activities that strengthen the traditional culture and sense of identity in their communities.”
Students from the Goodman Community Center’s Seed to Table program have also collaborated on the project. Seed to Table is an innovative education program focusing on urban agriculture and culinary arts. As Keith Pollock of the Goodman Community Center explains, the Seed to Table program focuses on natural products and has a strong multicultural focus, making the birch bark canoe project a natural interest. Goodman students will share in a traditional Ojibwe feast prepared by the Lac du Flambeau students and teachers on the day of the launch.
Students of the Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies (CLFS) have helped in the harvesting and construction of the canoe as well. They have also produced a film record of the building process, sharing images and video with the public daily on a Facebook page and website that they designed (https://wiigwaasijiimaan.wordpress.com/).
According to CLFS professor Tom DuBois, the project fits well with the ideals of public humanities and engaged research. “We are helping create and document an artwork that not only celebrates but sustains Ojibwe culture in our state. This canoe reminds us of the central importance of birch bark canoes of this kind in the history of our region. But the project also demonstrates the vibrant Native cultural traditions that are alive and well in our state today.” The website and Facebook page have attracted thousands of visitors, some from as far away as Alaska, Australia, Japan, and Finland, and reflect the UW’s ongoing commitment to humanistic research that reaches far beyond the walls of the University’s classrooms and facilities.
For further information, contact Tom Loeser (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Tom DuBois (email@example.com).
The project has been supported by the Windgate Foundation, the Wisconsin Humanities Council, The UW Office of the Vice Provost and Chief Diversity Officer, the Brittingham Foundation, the Collaborative Center for Health Equity, the Department of Art, the Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies, the American Indian Studies Program, the Wunk Sheek student organization, the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, Goodman Community Center and the ENVISION program of the Lac du Flambeau school district.