SO what do we expect to accomplish by building a birch bark canoe at Wahnapitae First Nation?
A birch bark canoe built with winter bark – at least one panel length below gunnels along each side – which is then etched with images depicting healing at individual, family and community levels. The bark canoe would show a healing journey….road or path to recovery….to find our rightful place as First Peoples in Canadian mosaic. Other images could be painted on the bark as well.
We hope this wiigwaasi jiimaan might find a place in the community….if so, we would be honoured.
This jiimaan once finished will be for the community’s to do with as it pleases….keep to use as a teaching tool, a reminder of our Anishinaabe culture and traditions….our amazing technology….but also to be used out on the water.
As the great canoe builder, Marcel Labelle says:
“The Anishinaabe needed transportation for the waterways which are a large part of their territory. The people realized the Creator had provided the very blueprint for such a watercraft based on their own bodies. The birch bark canoe was created. They turned to Mother Earth for the materials required, offering a prayer and tobacco as a gift each time they harvested these materials. We ask the birch tree if we can use the birchbark for the skin. We go to the cedar tree and ask if we can use its wood for the inner part of the canoe. The thinner cedar sheathing is like the layer of muscle, beneath the skin. The ribs of the canoe strengthen and support the canoe. The thwarts act as the sternum. The gunnels are the backbone. Our tendons are flexible and strong, bonding our muscles to our bones. We borrow the pliant roots from the spruce tree to connect the canoe together, by lashing and sewing with the roots. We also use the blood of the spruce tree – the gum or the tree’s sap – to seal the canoe. Like our blood, the tree’s sap flows. When our skin is punctured, our blood coagulates and it heals, sealing the wound. The same thing with the canoe; we use the blood of the spruce tree to seal the canoe. So this is the blue print. We carry it with us.”
The canoe increased our reach to shape the Canada we know today, carrying many to otherwise inaccessible landscapes. The canoe was a gift from First Nations to the immigrants from distant lands who used inadequate modes of transport, reflective of a different worldview. It was a gift that allowed the newcomers to flourish and grow. Most certainly, the canoe played a pivotal role in our collective past but it also has a significant role to play in our future.
The canoe worked with our geography to navigate waterways that connected people for trading and sharing. The shapes and patterns of each craft reflected individual personality, local culture and various functions, but often sharing the same general principles of design and construction. The canoe epitomized balance, strength, beauty, function and adaptability. It was built from various gifts of Mother Earth, shaped from the bounty of our wilderness, its design handed down through the generations, infused with spirit and responsible connections to a sustainable environment.
Today the canoe continues to teach us. It offers us an opportunity to understand and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of First Nations peoples. These contributions have long been absent from our historical narratives. It invites authentic questions and encourages connected thinking in a variety of different ways. It can serve as a catalyst for a trans-disciplinary, wholistic approach that can offer meaning and insight into the values and worldviews of the people who created it. It provides opportunities to learn about each other.
The Two Row Wampum speaks of friendship, respect and peace. The belt is fashioned with two rows of purple wampum (traditional shell beads) alternating with three rows of white.
The white wampum represent peace, friendship and respect while the purple ones depict the paths of two vessels traveling together on the river of life.
One vessel, a birch bark canoe, is for the Indigenous people and their customs and laws and the other, a sailing ship, is for the European settlers and their customs and laws. The pact promised that each would travel the river together but in separate boats, parallel but never touching, pledging that “neither of us will try to steer the other’s vessel.”
That the ends remain unfinished is representative of the fact that the stories of both peoples have both a long history and a future that is still being written. Their stories intertwine like the tassels of the belt and like the waters of the river. They will continue on down this river together in peace and friendship as long as the grass is green, the water flows, and the sun rises in the east.
We need to refloat or right the canoe that is Canada, especially as we work towards reconciliation. This is both hope and challenge for us; what we strive towards as real possibility for a shared future; to remind Canadians that we’re all in the same canoe and that to make this country work we should all be paddling together.
It has been said: “To know where one is going, one must know from where one has come.” In doing so, it is also good to think in canoe terms: “When in doubt, keep the open end up, and the pointed end forward.”
Again consider the birch bark canoe. From the birch tree, comes the bark; from the spruce, pliant roots; from the cedar, the ribs, planking and gunwales; and from a variety of natural sources, the sealing pitch. Form followed function, and manufacture was linked to available materials. A birch bark canoe is inherently beautiful. The canoe connects us not only to the past as well as present & future but reminds us of the importance of nature in our lives. Balance. Harmony. Grace.
The late Anishinaabe Elder Art Solomon once said:
“Native people feel they have lost something and they want it back. It doesn’t necessarily mean that when I talk about going back over there, that we stay over there. You have to get those teachings and pick up those things that we left along the way. The drums, the language, the songs are all scattered around. We need to bring them into this time. You need these things to teach your children today in order to give them that direction and good feelings about who they are. They need to know where they are going. It doesn’t mean we have to go back to living in teepees. You can be a traditionalist and be comfortable wherever you are.”
Art also said:
“The traditional way of education was by example, experience, and storytelling. The first principle involved was total respect and acceptance of the one to be taught, and that learning was a continuous process from birth to death. It was total continuity without interruption. Its nature was like a fountain that gives many colours and flavours of water and that whoever chose could drink as much or as little as they wanted to whenever they
wished. The teaching strictly adhered to the sacredness of life whether of humans, animals or plants.”
Art also spoke of the need for our communities to heal:
“The imperative for us now, as Native people, is to heal our communities, and heal our nations, because we are the final teachers in this sacred land. We have to teach how to live in harmony with each other and with the whole creation. People will have to put down their greed and arrogance before they can hear what we are saying. I am not sure how many will do that. So we are in the process of healing ourselves, healing our communities, and healing our nations.”
Art also said: “To heal a nation, we must first heal the individuals, the families and the communities.”
I feel it’s important to carry on the tradition of bark canoe building and pass on the skills to the future generation. These vessels are an example of what humans can accomplish when they work with nature rather than against it. About being connected to the earth and nature. It is about working with natural materials and making that connection. They’re made from renewable resources, don’t create pollution when made or used and are completely biodegradable.
Artisans across the Great Lakes are sustaining a work of art that is of cultural and historical significance to many in the area. The tradition of birch bark canoe building and travel is clearly not invented. It has lived in the hearts and memories of Anishinaabe peoples throughout the Great Lakes, resting like seeds within the community – waiting to germinate and flourish.
Perhaps this jiimaan can lead others to learn and pass on birch bark canoe building (and other related traditional skills) to Anishinaabe youth….to work with Indigenous communities and organizations….to help reconnect Indigenous peoples, especially youth, to the land, to the water….through their canoe heritage….as well as through culture and traditions….including the language. This jiimaan could bring Indigenous people together….learning about their culture and traditions together….altogether in one canoe as it were.
(NOTE: I apologize for being too wordy….but I am half Ojibway, half Irish….or Ojiberrish. Seriously though, I wanted to simply speak on the importance of the jiimaan. Miigwech for taking the time to read these words.)