Born with a white streak in his hair, Wayne Valliere’s full-blooded Ojibwe grandmother said that he would “become an elder of knowledge before his time.”
He continued tribal traditions through art as a child, winning several awards for his work. His skill was not taught in a classroom; it was passed down from family members and friends.
Now, as an adult, he is passing down the knowledge that he was taught by tribal elders. Valliere helped create the Ojibwe language program, is the Ojibwe language and culture instructor for the Lac du Flambeau Tribe, and also assisted in the creation of the Ojibwe Winter Games for Native American youth.
“This journey of culture that I’ve been on, one thing has led to the next. I started out when I was young ... listening to my elders and participating at ceremonies, and I created these paintings and drawings of our people, their tools and weapons, and their daily life. Today I speak my language. I know our ceremonial songs. I’m one of the head men in our community.”
And Valliere’s educational and cultural journey is far from over.
“At 47, I’m still learning – all the time, new stuff. I don’t know it all, and I don’t claim to know it all. I know a little bit, and if you know a little bit, there’s room to learn a lot,” Valliere said.
He built his first birch bark canoe at the age of 16. More than 30 years later, Valliere was commissioned to build another to be part of the Tribal Canoe Journey on the Salish Sea – the first time that the Anishinaabe of the Midwest took part in this ceremonial journey. The Salish Sea is located on the western coast of Washington State near Seattle and Puget Sound.
“It was the first time an Anishinaabe birch bark canoe hit the salt water in those people don’t know how long. Maybe in the Paleo period, that’s how long it’s been,” Valliere said. “We had killer whales coming up in front of us and huge, huge sea lions. It was a very spiritual happening the whole time.”
Building a wiigwaasi-jiimaan
“[The Tribal Canoe Journey] is about keeping our culture alive and it’s about canoe culture and how most natives have it,” Valliere said. “The birch bark canoe is very historic to our people. It was our main method of travel. From Flambeau Lake, you can get all the way to the Gulf of Mexico by water.”
Commissioned in 2011 by Tina Kuckkahn – director of the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at the Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash., and Lac du Flambeau tribal member – Valliere embarked on the year-long process of building a birch bark canoe.
“It took a year to construct this canoe because our materials are gotten at different times of the year and you have to process all these materials, and then there’s the actual construction.”
As a way to teach his children the tradition of building a wiigwaasi-jiimaan (birch bark canoe), Valliere had them help throughout the process.
“And I took my 10-year-old son out [to Washington] to pass knowledge down to the next generation,” Valliere said.
Tim Frandy of the UW-Madison folklore program documented the canoe-building procedure through photography, but ended up getting much more involved.
“Tim turned out to be kind of an apprentice, not just a photographer. We bonded a really good friendship, and that’s what canoe journeys and canoe building and things like that do because you’re out in nature and you experience so many positive things.”
“I feel like Wayne really gifted me a lot of traditional knowledge. After having gone through the process, you can see things differently. You see canoes differently. You see the woods differently from the harvesting techniques Wayne taught me,” Frandy said.
While searching for cedar to be used in the canoe, Valliere and Frandy had “a spiritual happening” that pointed them in the right direction.
“We didn’t know quite where to find this cedar, but we were shown a direction. All of a sudden, four otters ran across the path in front of us, so we knew it was the right place. That was the best canoe builder sign you can possible get. Otters, just like the canoes that are portaged, travel on the land and also use the water to travel.”
Between Frandy’s photographs and Valliere’s experience on the canoe journey, they put together a PowerPoint presentation to pass knowledge down to future generations.
After finishing the first phase of building the canoe in Lac du Flambeau, Valliere and Frandy shipped it out to Washington where it would be completed with the help of other tribes. Both in Lac du Flambeau and Washington, Valliere was working against a deadline.
“The spirits willing, we were on time. And then we went on our journey and it was a very positive experience. We represented the Anishinaabe out there and shared our culture with them, and they loved our culture and invited us out next year.”
The Tribal Canoe Journey
“The canoe journey is for Native people from around the world. There are no borders when it comes to Native people, aboriginal people of the land. We’re all one, and we came together collectively and that’s what the canoe journey is about. We share our culture amongst one another,” Valliere said.
With about 100 canoes and thousands of people taking part in the journey, Anishinaabe from Ontario, Wisconsin, Michigan and Washington state shared their stories, songs, dances, art forms and canoe forms with other tribes.
“Our canoe family was Anishinaabe, then we were with the Maoris tribe from New Zealand, and also the Skokomish tribe,” Valliere said. “We all came together as a family and they were in our camp to help finish this canoe, and we traveled together on this journey, picking up different tribes along the way.”
Traveling through waterways 20-feet wide to arrive at the Salish Sea, every time the canoe family joined with another tribe, there was a ritual. First, permission to come ashore had to be granted, then a celebration would ensue for a few days at that site.
“We would share our culture and our gifts with them, and then they would join the journey and we’d move down the coast to pick up the next tribe.”
After reaching the Salish Sea, there was a week-long celebration with all the tribes and gifts was presented to the host tribe, including the Lac du Flambeau birch bark canoe.
“In the end, the Maori people, the Anishinaabe people and the Skokomish people made beautiful gifts for the host tribe, and they filled that canoe up with beautiful, beautiful works of art. That was their gift on behalf of the Anishinaabe nation, the Skokomish and the Maori people of New Zealand. It was a very positive thing.”
After spending 10 days with tribes from around the country and the world, Valliere made life-long friends.
“The remarkable thing about all the different tribes I came across while I was on this journey was all the similarities of the tribes and the testimonial that we were one tribe at one time on this great island, and how through environment and distance, different languages were created, different cultures were made do survive as we spread out on this turtle island. That’s really cool when you meet somebody and they’re like a brother to you.”
2013 Tribal Canoe Journey
Next year’s canoe journey will entail a larger project for Valliere, which he won’t be doing single-handedly – a 30-foot voyageur canoe, a model that was used in the past during the fur trade to haul cargo around the Great Lakes.
“That will definitely be seaworthy when we get out there, and it will probably take about 14 to 16 men to paddle it,” Valliere said. “I’ll be getting some other builders involved in this process. We’re going to partner with the Evergreen State College and with our Lac du Flambeau public school and teach this craft back to our children and bring it back alive so that we never lose it again.”
This time it won’t just be Valliere and his son taking part in the journey.
“I’ll be selecting people to become part of our canoe family, and I want to get young people involved because that’s the future of our culture – teach them our language, our culture, our history, our identity. That’s our mission, to plant the seed of identity in our children.”
Following the motto, “Tell me, and I might remember. Tell and show me, and I might hold on to it for a while. But show me and make me do it, and I’ll remember it and I’ll hold it,” Valliere’s goal in life is to pass down Ojibwe knowledge to others, keeping their traditions alive for years and years to come.
“The knowledge I have, I thank my elders. The things that I know, I owe everything to them and in turn they owe their elders. That’s how it’s passed on from generation to generation. A lot of these things we can’t teach out of a book.”
One such cultural aspect that can’t be taught from a book is the building of a birch bark canoe.
“You have to get your hands dirty; you have to get a few wood splinters; you have to smell the sweet smell of bark coming off the tree; you have to hear the cracking of the cedar when it’s being split in the right way and the smack it makes when it finally separates. To write about that would be impossible.”
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org