splash page icon birchbark


These Canoes Carry Culture Project 2013-

hands at work on canoe


On this page you can learn about how Ojibwe people used and decorated their canoes and about how Wayne's canoe relates to past and present traditions of canoe building among Ojibwe people.

Canoes as Transport and Food Gathering Devices

The Traditions and Symbols of Wayne's Canoe

Wayne's Canoe in Context

Two people paddling a birchbark canoe in 1910. Another pleasure boat is visible in background

Lake Superior Ojibwe canoe, 1910. Minnesota Historical Society. Location No. E97.35 r8 Negative No. 44311. For Commons information on this public domain image, click HERE

Birchbark canoes are a key part of traditional Ojibwe life. Because they are so lightweight (Wayne's finished canoe only weighs about 80 pounds/36 kg), they can be easily carried across land and easily maneuvered in the water. They were thus eminently suited to the landscape of the Great Lakes region, with its numerous lakes and rivers. And because the canoes were made of materials readily available in the region's forests, they could be easily repaired if damaged.

Paddling May 27, 2013

The canoe Wayne built for the University of Wisconsin-Madison is 14 feet (4.26 meters) in length. During the era of French trade, canoes were produced of much greater length, capable of seating large crews of rowers, as in Frances Anne Hopkins's painting Shooting the Rapids from 1879.

Frances Anne Hopkins's painting Shooting the Rapids.  Large canoe with multiple rowers about to enter into a section of rapids on a river.

For Commons information on this public domain image, click HERE.

Canoes were traditionally not only a vehicle for transportation but also a device for gathering foods. For instance, in the summer, when it is time to harvest manoomin (wild rice), Ojibwe people use their canoes to catch the rice grains that they knock from the rice plants with special knocking sticks. (TF)

WIld rice harvesting with canoe, as depicted in 1853 illustration

Wild Rice harvesting using canoe, S. Eastman's illustration from 1853, which appeared in Mary H. Eastman's The American Aboriginal Portfolio. Click HERE for Commons information for this public domain image.


Wayne using canoe to catch harvested wild rice

Wayne, like other Wisconsin Ojibwe, continues to practice wild rice harvesting by canoe today.

Wayne notes that canoes tended to be sunk in lakes over the winter in order to keep the bark hydrated and pliable. The canoe was lined with clay and then loaded with stones. In the spring, when the ice thawed and open water returned, Ojibwe families could wade out into the lakes to retrieve their canoes for another season.

An important foodstuff for Ojibwe in the early spring was ziinzibaakwad, maple sugar. Wayne suggests that in ancient times, before the arrival of metal kettles as a product of contact with the French, Ojibwe could use their canoes as devices for catching or combining the sap that would be processed into maple sugar.

Sugar making among Native Americans, an illustration from the 19th century

William De La Montagne Carey's nineteenth-century depiction of Native maple sugaring. For Commons details on this public domain image, click HERE.

You can read a good article on nineteenth-century maple sugaring practices among Minnesota Ojibwe HERE.

Paul Kane's depiction of canoes on the Fox River, with large torches mounted on the prows and men standing with spears in the center

Paul Kane's nineteenth-century depiction of torchlight spear fishing on the Fox River. For Commons information on this public domain image, click HERE.

The spring is also the season in which ogaa (walleye) spawn. Wisconsin Indians learned how to spear fish at night using their canoes and torches. This is the origin of the name Lac du Flambeau ("lake of the torch").

Wayne posing with finished canoe, Lac du Flambeau

Wayne suggests that the prominent vertical ends to the Lac du Flambeau birchbark canoe style—evident in the canoe he produced for the University of Wisconsin-Madison—derives from the need to have a solid anchor for torches that would hang out above or in front of the canoe during spear fishing, as in Paul Kane's nineteenth-century illustration of the custom in the Fox River. Wayne also notes, however, that the different styles oadditional sign detailing motifs on the canoe, prepared for the ceremonyf prow and stern in different regions or communities allowed Ojibwe to recognize friends and foes from afar, an important consideration in an era of recurrent warfare.

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Traditions and Symbols of Wayne's Canoe


As part of the ceremony for the installation of the canoe at Dejope Hall, the above poster was produced, showing some of the canoe's key decorative motifs and their meanings. The decorative elements of the Wayne's canoe are both traditional and at the same time highly personal.

Wayne carving turtle manboard for stern

The two manboards (inini-bagoog) are decorated with patterns that reflects celestial bodies and Ojibwe clans.

prow manboard showing bear claw and North Star

The prow of the canoe features a bear's claw, a symbol of Wayne's paternal clan, makwa (the bear), and the North Star (Polaris), crucial for nighttime navigation. In Ojibwe, the prow is associated with the future, since one is always paddling forward into the future. The Ojibwe name for the prow is niigaan jiimaan—the future of the canoe.

stern manboard showing turtle and Morning Star motifs


The stern of the canoe features a mikinaak (snapping turtle), a symbol of Wayne's maternal clan, and the Morning Star (Venus), another aid in navigation. The stern of the canoe is associated in Ojibwe with the past, i.e., that which one has left behind. The Ojibwe name for the stern is ishkweyaang jiimaan—the past of the canoe. Wayne explains that when sitting in the center of the canoe, he can feel centered in the confluence of his two family lines, the future and the past, and the cardinal directions, meaning that he can never get lost, physically or spiritually.

view of bow thwart as first shaped for canoe

(TD) Each of the thwarts is designed to accomplish the essential task of maintaining the shape and rigidity of the canoe, while also adding aesthetic and symbolic touches.

Wayne chiselling the center thwart

(TD) The center thwart received a special shaping by chissel.

Otter and directions design on center thwart

The triangles at the outer edges of the center thwart symbolize the four cardinal directions, while the pattern in the center symbolizes the otter, an animal who combines life on land with life on the water. In this way, the otter signifies life on earth. Ojibwe tradition tells that the first oars came through the wisdom of the otter, and the handle of canoe oars are shaped so as to suggest an otter's paw. In search for the birch that would provide the main piece of bark for the hull of the canoe, Wayne and his associates were led to the tree after sighting otters crossing the road.


Canoe viewed from prow, showing blue paint on thwarts

Wayne also used paint to add further symbolism to the thwarts. When viewed from the stern, looking toward the prow,the thwarts all appear blue. Blue symbolizes the sky.

Canoe viewed from stern, with red paint on thwarts evident

When viewed from the prow, looking toward the stern, the thwarts all appear red. Red symbolizes the land. The canoe can thus be said to travel between the sky and the land.

Wayne with the decorative lashing on the prow, showing thunderbird motif

Decorative lashings added the prow and stern symbolize the wings of thunderbirds, powerful spirits that help cleanse and nourish the earth through the rains provided from the heavens. Thunderbirds are also depicted on the oars. Visually invoking thunderbirds is a way of seeking safety and protection for all who ride in the canoe. (TD)


The stern thunderbird wing pattern stands out with particular clarity over the dark red hue of the winter bark. (TD)

thunderbird stitches on sternAdding reinforcement strip of bark with jagged pattern on the top of the canoe at gunwales

An extra ply of bark was added to reinforce the bark at the top of the canoes, by the gunwales. The bottom edge of the piece is cut with a jagged pattern that serves both a decorative and a practical purpose. Because the lower edge is not lashed or sewn to the other bark layers of the canoe, it can gradually roll up as the bark dries out over time. The jagged pattern here helps keep the pieces fitting flat and snug against the other layers of bark, preventing the rolling from occurring, or minimizing its effects. (TD)



Wayne applying pitch to the hull


One area in which a viewer might assume aesthetic intent is in the black pine pitch on the hull of the canoe. This feature of the canoe, although visually striking, is also simply practical: the pitch coats seams where pieces of bark were sewn together and also seals places where the bark has holes that would cause the canoe to leak. Some modern carvers will sometimes use tape to create very regular, straight lines of pitch, particularly along the sides of the canoe that are most easily seen when the canoe is in the water. Wayne finds this nicety unnecessary, suggesting that it makes the canoe look too much like a mass-produced item. For Wayne, the irregularity of the pitch patterns lends the canoe a natural and interesting appearance.

Tapping ribs in place. Image shows the alternation of light and dark lashings before the addition of a topwale.

Another fortuitous aesthetic feature of Wayne's canoe is the alternation of dark and light colored lashings on the gunwales. This patterning came about in part by chance. In order to build the canoe in Madison, all the needed materials had to be harvested in Lac du Flambeau during the summer and then transported to Madison. A supply of spruce roots were amassed and processed in Lac du Flambeau. Once in Madison, they were placed in a large barrel of water in the wood shop to stay hydrated and pliable in anticipation of the lashing. Over time they bleached lighter. When it became clear that the project would require additional roots, Wayne harvested more materials in Lac du Flambeau later in the season (in fall), and processed these in the wood shop. These roots were darker in color. Wayne decided to alternate dark and light roots, yielding the pattern evident in the finished canoe.

Adding the topwale. Image shows the light and dark lashings as viewed from side

Dark and light lashings are evident in this photo taken during the installing of the topwale. (TD)

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Wayne's Canoe in Context


thee generations of canoe builders at work on a canoe outdoors

Three generations of Ojibwe canoe builders in Wisconsin. From Left to Right: Marvin DeFoe, Wayne Valliere, Leon Valliere, Henry Valliere.

Wayne and his brother Leon represent Lac du Flambeau's only resident canoe builders. They learned the art of canoe making from Marvin DeFoe of Red Cliff reservation. You can read Marvin DeFoe's reflections on his art and the recovery of canoe making knowledge in his tribe HERE. In recalling the occasion of finishing his first canoe at the age of 18, DeFoe states: "We did a ceremony, put your tobacco out, and you feast it. And I remember going out on the lake, out on Lake Superior, where I lived, Red Cliff. It was like that lake smiled, the soul of the lake kind of smiled because the canoe once again floated on its water. It was a really good feeling."

Ojibwe artists have worked in various ways to maintain and extend knowledge of the canoe-building tradition within Ojibwe communities. See a good example of an another Ojibwe effort at the Fond du Lac Cultural Center, sponsored by the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa HERE.

Timothy G. Roufs has produced an ethnographic biography of Paul Peter Buffalo, well illustrated with archival photographs that gives a feel for the kinds of knowledge that canoe builders have recovered from tribal elders as they work to repatriate the canoe building tradition among younger Ojibwe.

Wayne demonstrates traditional method of deciding the width of a canoe

Wayne frequently explained traditional aspects of canoe construction to students and assistants. Here he demonstrates how a man traditionally determined the desired width for a canoe: from the center of the canoe, the distance to the outer edge of the gunwale should equal the distance from the builder's sternum to his fingertips.

Wayne demonstrates the waagikomaan, or traditional crooked knife, the essential tool in canoe building in the past.

A slide show overview of the canoe Wayne built in the summer of 2012.

Particularly valuable for the recovery of canoe traditions have been ethnographic films made by anthropologists and other scholars observing the practices of traditional builders. Below you can sample some of these resources. Also valuable are the wealth of films and documentation projects that have occured in recent years in connection with canoe builders in Canada and the United States. These various resources give an inkling of the ways in which the canoe tradition varies from place to place, and the differing ways in which the knowledge is put into practice among builders today. If you would like to see the details of how Wayne Valliere created the canoe at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, consult the CONSTRUCTION pages of this website.

For a Canadian Ojibwe account of making a canoe, click HERE

A 1946 Canadian documentary about birchbark canoe building:

An important 1971 Canadian documentary of César Newashish of the Attikamek nation, Manouane reservation, Québec making a canoe:

1973 footage of a canoe builder who learned birchbark canoe building from Native tradition:

Wayne's teacher Marvin DeFoe, teaching traditional techniques of canoe building:

A 2007 documentary of a Canadian builder's technique, Saguenay, Québec:

A recent documentary about Dogrib elders working to recover the tradition of birchbark canoes (kielà) that were used by Dogrib people between the areas of Sahtì (Great Bear Lake) and Tìdeh (Great Slave Wake) in Canada

Métis builder Marcel Labelle recently completed a 26-foot canoe that was launched on Lake Ontario:


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