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Lac du Flambeau teacher honored with fellowship for birchbark canoe building

July 03, 2020 by Abigail Bostwick

Two central Wisconsin artists have been bestowed with the 2020 National Heritage Fellows from the National Endowment for the Arts, the “nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.” 

Included is Lac du Flambeau’s own Wayne “Minogiizhig” Valliere, Sr., 55, one of the few of the nearly-extinct birchbark canoe creators and Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians Tribe member.

“Birchbark canoes are considered an apex of Anishinaabe culture — aesthetically beautiful objects that for centuries represented one of the most sophisticated inland watercrafts in the world,” the fellowship press release said. “Mino-Giizhig is one of only a handful of Native birchbark canoe builders today in the United States, and he (Valliere) has dedicated his life to carrying his culture forward through traditional arts.”

Lifetime award honors of $25,000 are given to recognize such artistic excellence and efforts to sustain Native cultural traditions for future generations. 

About Valliere, Sr.

Valliere has called the area home all his life and established a reputation as a well-respected birchbark canoe builder not only in his own local community, but nationwide. 

Born with a white streak in his hair, it was said Valliere would be an elder before his time. According to Valliere’s grandmother, it signified that a “spirit of an old Indian” went into Valliere, the press release stated.

From a young age, Valliere took a great interest in Anishinaabe culture. In high school, he learned to paint scenes of traditional Ojibwe life. Over time, he became increasingly interested in producing the traditional arts that he was depicting in his paintings. He spoke with elders, like Joe Chosa, Marvin DeFoe, and Ojaanimigiizhig, to learn to construct the crafts he painted. Later, he began studying ethnographies and working with historical artifacts to reverse-engineer historical technologies and crafts, the press release added.

Valliere has a vast artistic repertoire: beadwork, quillwork, regalia, drums, basketry, pipes, lodges, weaponry, hunting tools and more. He is a a respected Northwoods singer and storyteller. 

Of all these talents, he is best known as a birchbark canoe builder, a craft he learned alongside his brother, Leon.

“Because of the craft’s complexity, it takes years to learn to independently build a canoe,” the fellowship noted. “One must have a deep understanding of the forest to locate, harvest, and process natural materials for the canoe: thick, pliable birchbark for the hull; straight-grained cedar for ribs and sheathing; spruce roots for stitching and lashings; and pine pitch, which is mixed with oak ash and deer tallow to tar the stitching.

“In older times, birchbark canoes were used for transportation, fishing, harvesting wild rice, and hunting. Canoes still are used in these ways. They are a way of life, and they represent a way of perceiving the world for Anishinaabe people. In the Ojibwe language, for example, the words for the bow and stern of a canoe — niigaan jiimaan and ishkweyaan jiimaan — also refer to the notions of the future and the past, conceiving of one’s passage through life as a journey by canoe.”

Valliere, who works as an Ojibwe language and culture teacher at the Lac du Flambeau Public School, has been actively working with apprentices and other Native communities to help keep this important art alive for a number of years. 

In the past, he was recognized for this work in 2015 with the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award from the First Peoples Fund, and a 2017 Mentor Artist Fellowship from Native Arts & Cultures Foundation. 

“From the ceremonial harvest of birchbark and sacred cedar to the creative and innovative modifications to the process of their construction, these canoes carry culture and traditional knowledge,” it was indicated in the press release. “They carry identity and worldview. They carry the future of the Anishinaabe people.”

Other Heritage Fellowship recipients

“Each year the Heritage Fellowships highlight the distinct living traditions of communities around our nation, as well as how our fellows instill a sense of pride, beauty, and cultural continuity through their art,” said Mary Anne Carter, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “The National Endowment for the Arts is pleased to recognize these outstanding artists with a National Heritage Fellowship.”

The other Wisconsin recipient is Karen Hoffman, Oneida Nation, for her Iroquois Raised Beadwork. 

Also honored are William Bell, Georgia, soul singer and songwriter from Georgia; Onnik Dinkjian, New Jersey, Armenian folk and singer; Zakarya and Naomi Diouf, California, West African Diaporic dancers; John Morris, Virginia, old-time fiddler and banjo player; Los Matachines de la Santa Cruz de la Laurillera, traditional religious dancer; Suni Paz, Nevada, Nueva Canción singer and songwriter and Hugo Morales, California, radio producer and radio network builder.

The annual National Heritage Fellows event celebrating all the new fellows will take place virtually this year due to the  COVID-19 pandemic.

About the National Heritage Fellowships

The National Heritage Fellowships are the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Including the 2020 class, the Arts Endowment has awarded 449 National Heritage Fellowships, recognizing artists working in more than 200 distinct art forms, including bluesman B.B. King, Cajun fiddler and composer Michael Doucet, sweetgrass basket weaver Mary Jackson, cowboy poet Wally McRae, Kathak dancer and choreographer Chitresh Das, and gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples.

Fellowship recipients are nominated by the public, often by members of their own communities and judged by a panel of experts in the folk and traditional arts. The panel’s recommendations are reviewed by the National Council on the Arts, which sends its recommendations to the Arts Endowment chairman, who makes the final decision. 

Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.

Abigail Bostwick may be reached at [email protected]

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