Meet 2020 National Heritage Fellow Wayne Valliere (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe)

A man painting the side of a canoe.

Photo by Tim Frandy

NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive. 

Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.

Wayne Valliere is an Ojibwe birchbark canoe maker, , a language advocate, and one of the great educators and protectors of cultural practice in his community of Lac de Flambeau in Wisconsin. He’s also a 2020 NEA Heritage Fellow. His work in reinvigorating the tradition of birchbark canoe-building is in some ways an archetypal form of folk and traditional arts. That is an art form that is made for and by and about the community that uses it. The Ojibwe is a nation and cultural community that has a deep connection to waterways… And the birch bark canoe was used for transportation, fishing, harvesting wild rice, and hunting. The tradition of building these canoes had been handed down for millennia and require carpentry, weaving, the ability to read a forest, and engineering. It is a boat as beautiful as it is functional. And, it is one of the most sophisticated inland watercrafts in the world. Wayne Valliere is one of only a handful of Native birchbark canoe builders today in the United States. Wayne has made it his mission to preserve his culture as a living tradition for the future generations. I spoke with Wayne recently with a less-than-wonderful internet connection. I began by asking him if he was raised in the traditions of the Anishinaabe.

Wayne Valliere: Yes, I was. You know from my earliest memory traditional ways were spoken of and practiced in our family, and my parents, they kept company with elders themselves so I was exposed to elders at a very early age and learning from elders and the importance of Native knowledge that the elders hold.

Jo Reed: And was that unusual at that time when you were growing up, was your family unusual for keeping to traditional ways, or was that more common?

Wayne Valliere: It was unusual because in the early '70s it was, in our community the cultural light was growing quite dim at the time. There were very old people that still had our old knowledge but there were very few younger people picking it up. Boarding schools, different things in the historical traumas, you know there was a pause I guess, and so what happened was there wasn't a lot of culture around at the time. There was just a few elders that had that kind of knowledge.

Jo Reed: I'm curious how you came to recognize the centrality of reclaiming that culture, not as a dead tradition but as a way of living.

Wayne Valliere: Well, I truly believe that we as human beings we all have a destiny, and my destiny from the day I was born was to be involved in culture. My grandmother predicted, when I was born I was born with a white streak in my hair, my grandmother told my mother that she believed I was a reincarnated elder and that at the time she said someday that this grandchild of mine will be a cultural bearer, and as I grew up my mother was very, very surprised at how I was drawn to culture since my earliest memory and throughout my life and the importance of saving our different cultural areas before they slipped into the pages of history so they could remain alive, so that's where I'm at with that.

Jo Reed: Now you learned to make a vast array of different Native arts and artifacts, moccasins, needle points, et cetera, but you came to it, if I understand this correctly, through your painting, you were painting these things and then wondered how to make them.

Wayne Valliere: Yes, being exposed and seeing these things but also doing research of the daily life of the Anishinaabe and through I guess museum pieces and different writings and different photographs and researching the tools and the weapons and the clothing they wore at the time, and I think I was 16 when I realized that I really wanted to learn how to make the things that I was painting and it started a remarkable journey of knowledge for me and it was one thing led to the next and pretty soon you know I have enough knowledge to pretty much build everything in those paintings I used to make.

Jo Reed: And is that when you learned Ojibwe, or did you know the language earlier?

Wayne Valliere: Ojibwe, Anishinaabemowin, Ojibwemowin, it was spoken by our grandmother fluently, and she spoke it to us a lot, and the elders my parents accompanied also spoke a lot of Ojibwemowin, so we were raised hearing the language a lot, and then I guess when I was along that time (at) 16 I started to make a decision that I was going to move to fluency in my language and I quickly realized that our language, our sound, is the nucleus of our culture because without our language we can't convey our prayers to the Great Spirit and its helpers, and we can't thank what we call manidoo spirits for the gifts that we get in the woods. So the language is the nucleus for our culture. Our language has our worldview, which is totally different than American worldview. But it's a very respectful language, there is no swearwords in our language, it's always positive, the respectful manner people are spoken to when they're addressed.

Jo Reed: Birchbark canoe making was almost a lost art, and I'd like you to explain the importance of the birchbark canoe to the Anishinaabe.

Wayne Valliere: Well, I guess the importance of the birchbark canoe for our people is everywhere we traveled, we're a hunter-gathering tribe, the Ojibwe people, and we hunt and gather our foods in nature and this brings us to different seasonal camps where we have to travel to, and in Northern Wisconsin you can't throw a rock without hitting a lake. So it was much easier to paddle across a lake and portage a light 68-pound canoe over a mile to the next lake and paddle nine miles across. So the birchbark canoe was used for that, but it was also used as a shelter when they were traveling. It was used for, like I said, all of the industrial yeah of Anishinaabe, it took them to the rice beds and also harvesting wild rice from birchbark canoe. They hunted from a canoe using a torch shining, casting artificial light into the woods where the one's whose eyes glow, the deer, would shine, they would hunt the deer that way by seeing their eyes with the torch, and also spearing fish in the lakes, the eyes of the walleye glows at night from our torches and we spear fish through a birchbark canoe. So all of these things from the child to the elder, birchbark canoes played a big role in the life of the Anishinaabe, and I believe that it's a great part of our identity at a time when birchbark canoe building was common knowledge amongst all Anishinaabe because everybody, every family needed a birchbark canoe so the knowledge was common. Going down to, getting down to five master Ojibwe canoe builders in the Midwest is kind of, it became a very scary thought, becomes a very scary thought for me, so in my life I've actually produced one canoe builder and I'm working on the second right now. So we're changing that in my generation, we're making sure that some young people will have this skill enough to keep it alive to teach the greater public.

Jo Reed: They are as beautiful as they are functional and obviously it is a time-consuming art, as most art is, and you've said you have to make it on nature's time, not your time. I want you to say more about that and talk about the steps that go into making these canoes.

Wayne Valliere: Yes, we are on nature time when we do most, work with most natural materials when we're doing different things. But the birchbark canoe, it brings us to all the seasons. For example the bark, the birchbark that comes off the tree comes off in the spring, in June of the year, that's the only time you can really get it off in huge sheets where it's easy and the best time. It can also be harvested in the fall, it's called winter bark but it's, there again we go to the fall, another season, to harvest another bark. The cedar is harvested in the winter here because we go into the swamps, the cedar swamps are quite impassible any other season so we go in the winter when the swamp floor is frozen so we can harvest the cedar and skin that off and process that. The roots are gotten in the summertime when the ground is soft and processed. The pitch is harvested in the fall when the tree expresses, the pitch, the sealant for the canoe is harvested in the fall when the pines, the evergreens express all their sap from the previous summer. So all these different materials are harvested at different times and they're processed down and it's usually in the spring of the year when the bark comes off the tree is the time Anishinaabe would begin his canoe building, and so that's kind of on nature's clock, and when that season comes you have to be there, and I tell my apprentices that we're on nature's time and nature isn't on our time. Grandmother Earth, we're on her time.

Jo Reed: You don't make these in isolation, you have students, you have apprentices, you've mentored over 100 students, and you are determined that this will be carried on as a living tradition. These canoes are meant to be used. They are alive and vibrant and vital to the Anishinaabe culture.

Wayne Valliere: Yes, at our public school we do a canoe launch and we actually bring our canoe off the wall, display it where all of our students can see it, but we also use the canoe at different times of the year to demonstrate different cultural areas for our students. But me personally, I have my personal birchbark canoe where I could be seen all the time using it, and we try to, and also we went to several other communities throughout the Midwest and had projects where we built canoes in different communities, planting the seed of birchbark canoe building. So those people are coming back to us and they're doing it, so we're pretty happy about that.

Jo Reed: Well, and you don't just teach them how to build a birchbark canoe, you've developed a program called "These Canoes Carry Culture," which I think is really terrific, and I'd like you to say more about the program and the culture that the canoes carry.

Wayne Valliere: Well, these canoes carry culture, like I was saying, everything, the industrial year of the Anishinaabe, all of the different harvesting we do throughout the four seasons is in that canoe. During that time there's storytelling, there's teachings that are happening, life happens around when we're building canoes, camaraderie happens amongst strangers that are building canoes, friendships happen. So it's really magical; it's kind of a teaching, we have all these different materials that come from different parts of the environment, that come to make a beautiful watercraft. When people come together like that we become one, and there becomes harmony amongst canoe building because it's really hard work and it's also very gratifying each stitch that's put in, the smells and all the sounds, and it's very sacred to the Anishinaabe, and people that are involved with this building process they see the spiritual part of it because all the materials that we harvested we have ceremonies for. The material is asked permission to take it, and it's begged a thousand pardons when we do take it. But also in these canoes that we teach also we have a message of conservation and environment and making sure that we have birch forests for they owned obviously for the ones that are not yet born making sure that we have good pine trees that are going to produce the pitch that we need, and also the cedar forest so that they're healthy and our grandchildren will be able to go and harvest those things as they need them. So those messages are also passed on to our people and to my students about the importance of conservation and awareness of these environments and speaking all to the world the importance of the environment, about clean water and clean air and all these things are very important to the Anishinaabe people because it's our way of life, it affects our way of life every day.

Jo Reed: I'm curious how teaching and learning how you see the difference in Western culture and in Anishinaabe culture, how teaching and learning is different.

Wayne Valliere: Well, I see teaching and learning quite different. I actually teach a method I call teaching culturally, which is I don't teach culture, I teach culturally, meaning that for example a pair of moccasins for example, moccasins are made out of deer skin and quills and different things that we've made traditionally. But showing the student a pair of moccasins as opposed to going farther back and explaining about the deer herd, where the deer come from, what the deer do, how we harvest the deer, bringing the deer in and actually tanning the deer skin, showing all that work, showing patterning, talking about patterning, actually making the moccasins and how the pocket-toe moccasins signifies our tribe and what those stitches mean, and finally when you put that moccasin on you're walking in the steps of your ancestors. So that's teaching culturally, and we do that in what's a lot of different things. While we're teaching we think three-dimensional, it's always been three-dimensional for our students. So we try to make our teaching three-dimensional the same way. We bring in Western techniques and show the parallel with Anishinaabe techniques that way our children tend to take better ownership of it and it's known, it's a known fact that students do better when they see themselves in school, so we make sure of that in our public school, and we have an administration that's they're really good people and they're totally behind our endeavor.

Jo Reed: You were artist in residence at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where you built a birchbark canoe and you brought in children from the public school at Lac du Flambeau, and I really want you to tell me about this project and how it served as learning for everybody involved.

Wayne Valliere: Oh, yeah, the residency at UW Madison, it was really awesome. We built it in the woodshop. It was right in the building where they had all the artists, I think it's called the Humanities building. What was really cool about it was there was so many different cultures that came and visited the canoe, and pretty soon these different cultures started getting involved in this canoe building. We had people from, you know studying the Asami culture to the Scandinavians to Koreans to Chinese people to Latino people that were involved. We had a day when we were standing around the canoes and we were singing all these different cultural songs in all these different languages, so it was really cool, and it was also an awesome opportunity to bring something, to bring our students in the Lac du Flambeau public school down into a Big Ten university and see Native culture being showcased at a Big Ten university, and since that time we've actually had two students that have enrolled in UW Madison from our public school that were exposed to the school because of that residency, so it was really cool, and there was a lot of really good things that happened at the University.

Jo Reed: Well, you've said to your students that they don't have to lose their identity to become educated in the Western world. Is that the fear that somehow you do have to lose your identity to get that education because, in fact, historically that had been true?

Wayne Valliere: What happens is it's because of historical trauma, things that have happened in the past in our grandparents' time that has brought us forward to the way people feel about certain things today, we're still affected today by it. So, what we show, like our traditional teachings, we have values in teachings, and what we're showing is how to use these values in modern times in modern problems in modern things so we can live as spiritual people and believe our way, our creation stories, we can believe all of our medicines, all of our different things we do that makes us Anishinaabe. We can still have all those things, but also we have the ability to learn Western culture also, and Western education, and we can have the best of both worlds.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Sustainability, as you mentioned, is so central to your work and slowly, slowly we in the West understand more and more the damage we're doing to the environment. Do you find people are paying more attention to the way of life that you're practicing?

Wayne Valliere: Yeah, I think they are, you know, I mean, especially my apprentices. Like my apprentice, his name is Lawrence Mann, he's been with me for six years and it's been amazing to watch the transformation of this young man and the knowledge that he carries and how he carries that, and how he passes it back down to the next generation already, and it gives me hope that it is possible and it is happening because we're seeing it.

Jo Reed: When you were young your grandmother challenged you about the way you want to be remembered. Can you recall for us what that challenge was?

Wayne Valliere: My grandfathers, they were written throughout history by different non-Native history writers in the past going back as far as 150 years. But not only that, but in the stories of our people and our oral stories that go way back, all the way back to Madeline Island, which is the 1500s. We can from our mother we can retrace our grandfather all the way back to Madeline Island in the 1500s. She talked about each one of them because while he was the chief of all the Ojibwe of the Midwest at one time off Madeline Island, and all of Wisconsin Ojibwe. So his sons in the lineage of chieftainship that came down through our first grandfather that landed on Madeline Island. They were great men and they did great things for the people, and she challenged us as she talked to us and told us stories about these men, she challenged us also. She said, "Now look at your grandfathers, the ones that came before you, and what I challenge you guys, you young boys is what are your grandchildren going to say about you, what are the stories that are going to be written about you, what things are you going to do?"

Jo Reed: And finally when you've received so many awards, it's really extraordinary, and now you've been named a National Heritage Fellow, and I wonder what this award means for you.

Wayne Valliere: Well, it's very humbling, but also I accept this award on behalf of the Anishinaabe, the Anishinaabe, the Ojibwe Nation because ultimately the knowledge that I carry is not mine, it belongs to the Anishinaabe Nation, and I thank all of the, my teachers and people that have taken their time to show me these things, and also the promises I made to pass it down, how important it was to them not to hold onto it and make sure I pass it down so it stays alive, so that's it.

Jo Reed: Your work is so beautiful. Aside from its cultural importance, it is utterly gorgeous. Thank you, and congratulations and thank you for giving me your time.

Wayne Valliere: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That is birchbark canoe builder, teacher, culture bearer and 2020 NEA Heritage Fellow Wayne Valliere. Celebrate the 2020 National Heritage Fellows in an online broadcast on March 4, 2021 at 8pm ET at trust me, you really want to see Wayne at work. So mark the calendar for March 4!

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening

Culture-bearer and 2020 National Heritage Fellow Wayne Valliere (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is one of a handful of birch bark canoe builders left in the United States. The Ojibwe is a nation and cultural community that has a deep connection to waterways, and the birch bark canoe was commonly used for transportation, fishing, harvesting wild rice, and hunting. The tradition of building these canoes had been handed down for millennia. The boats are as beautiful as they are functional; in fact, it is one of the most sophisticated inland watercrafts in the world.  Wayne Valliere is determined to keep this cultural knowledge alive and vibrant—ready to be passed down to the next generations.  In this podcast, Wayne Valliere explains how the boats are made “on nature’s time; “ he takes us through the steps of the boats’ creation and their profound cultural meaning as well as Anishinaabe ways of teaching, learning and being.