Group of participants and contributors to the making of the birch bark canoe, wiigwossi jiimaanke, in the atrium at the Bata Library at Trent University. The completed wiigwossi jiimaan will live in the Gathering Space in Enweying/First People’s House of Learning at Trent University. Photo courtesy of Barbara Wall.

By Julie Kapyrka

PETERBOROUGH – For two weeks during the month of the Bear Moon, in the atrium of the Bata Library at Trent University, over 200 community participants offered their hands for wiigwossi jiimaanke: the building of a birch bark canoe.

Main organizer, Barbara Wall, Bodwewaadmii Anishinaabe, and PhD candidate in Indigenous Studies at Trent, explained the vision of the project.

“To bring to the forefront experiential learning and the Anishinaabe Knowledges associated with jiimaanke—including harvesting, preparation of materials, construction of jiimaan, and the art of birch bark etching using images to enrich the connection between the canoe family and the land and waters of Michi Saagiig [Mississauga] territory,” expressed Wall. “Relationship building was also part of the vision – to bring together the Trent community, local First Nation communities, and the greater Peterborough area.”

Kevin Finney, Misko’o artist and activist from western Michigan, and longtime friend of Barbara, has worked for over 20 years to promote equitable and sustainable solutions through community based revitalization of traditional knowledge and land-based relationships. So when Barbara brought up the idea of this project, Kevin was all in.

Kevin’s artwork expertise includes birch bark and elm basketry, burl feast bowls and spoons, traditional hide tanning, twined bark fiber bags and antler carving. Learning from traditional knowledge carriers in the Great Lakes Region including Steven Pigeon, Ferdy Goods and Earl Otchingwaniga, he has completed the construction of 8 birch bark canoes, 3 elm bark canoes and 3 dugout canoes.

Kevin was invited to be part of Trent University’s Artist in Residence program in early February. With the invaluable commitment and collaboration of Brenda Maracle-O’Toole, Indigenous Studies PhD program; Dawn Lavell-Harvard, First People’s House of Learning; Loretta Durst, Bata Library Director; and Caleb Musgrave, Hiawatha First Nation, the project was brought to fruition.

Accompanying Kevin from Michigan, artist Jillian Collins, Bodwewaadmii Anishinaabe from Gun Lake, offered her expertise and experience throughout the project.

“[I am] an Indigenous Artist, Dreamer, Adventurer and Tour Guide to the universe for her four children,” Collins describes herself with a mile wide smile.

Jillian applies a contemporary spin on the traditional Indigenous arts. Her work with winter bark ranges from the more traditional baskets to modern fashion pieces. Blending these two styles, she probes the delicate space of walking in two worlds. Through her continuous work with Knowledge Keepers, non-profits, tribes, schools and museums, Jillian hopes to create a bridge to traditional knowledge that inspires the next generation.

“In this existence, this is how I feed my soul,” expressed Collins.

What was remarkable about this project was the use of space and the context it created. Everyone was cognizant of and appreciated that the project was being carried out in Trent University’s Bata library, the symbolic centre of an institution of Western knowledges.

Caleb Musgrave, Michi Saagiig from Hiawatha First Nation, described how the project embodies Indigenous knowledges.

“There’s some kind of poetry going on here, and some kind of metaphor when you look at the fact that we’re building this canoe in a library and in many ways, these trees could have potentially been turned into paper to make more books,” stated Musgrave. “So this is a living book – every part of this canoe we understand it. We’ve read the lines, we’ve read all the details, too. We’ve turned the pages on every step and we’ve had drama, we’ve had comedy, we’ve had sorrow, and frustration and all the things that make a good story in a book.”

Head builder Kevin Finney commented that although it has been challenging at times because normally birch bark canoes are built on a sandy bed by a lake, with access to fire and water for soaking, in the open air, it has been a beautiful thing because so many students have been able to come by and see it.

Finney also believes that there is a lot of symbolism in the process being in the library.

“The birch bark, the spruce roots, the cedars, all of these things from the natural world are a library,” explained Finney. “This is a library of traditional knowledge. This sort of knowledge, Gikendaasowin, it doesn’t come from books, it comes from the materials, it comes from community.”

Various Elders from this area came out to share their stories of growing up and their knowledge of their experiences and memories of parents and grandparents who had built canoes.

“That’s the library. Our library is really each other – as we share and talk,” shared one of the Elders present at the library.

Significantly, this canoe build not only reclaimed intellectual space in an academic institution, but also reclaimed Michi Saagiig cultural and historical spaces upon the landscape and territory. The canoe was built on the shores of the Otonabee River where Champlain was one of the first non-Indigenous explorers to reap the forces of colonization upon these lands.

For Caleb Musgrave, who calls these lands home, this project has had a deep emotional and spiritual meaning for him.

“To me, it is a powerful message that we are putting these canoes back in that water, we are bringing these canoes and we’re bringing this culture back to these waters where he brought the change that drastically shifted our way of life,” shared Musgrave. “So this is the place to be building this canoe.”

Caleb outlined the history of the birch bark canoes in this area in that they have not been in use for about 150 years as the demand grew for their wood and their bark. All of the good canoe birch trees were lost to this area. Thus, the birch bark (apparently from Siberia) came with Kevin Finney as well as some cedar, spruce, jack pine roots, and gum from Michigan. Some of the spruce gum that was used came directly from Trent University campus lands. The birch thwarts as well as all of the birch bark patches were provided by the trees from Hiawatha First Nation.

“So for me, it’s a resurgence and a rekindling,” expressed Finney. “For me it’s a sign of sovereignty as well because if you know how to build these things and know how to take care of these things, when you have that mental toolkit built into you already, your impact on the earth – your carbon footprint is smaller. And it’s also survival of our material culture. People talk often about the spiritual culture and the language culture aspects, but without the land, and our land knowledge, those things are moot points. If you don’t have the land, you don’t have the language. If you don’t have the land, you don’t have the spirit. So when we work with these items you’re understanding that cedar, you’re understanding that spruce, that birch, the pine, whether it’s the jack pine root or the pine gum, or the spruce root or the spruce gum. When you understand these beings, you care about them, they become a part of your life…Spirit is 110 per cent involved with this. So for me it’s resurgent and revitalization, but it’s also survival. It’s the survival of our very way of life. And that’s why this is so important to me.”

One of Jillian Collins’ favourite parts about the canoe and the building process was that it was evident that it was a community project.

“You can see that the community’s been on it,” shared Collins. “You can see every different stitch, you can see the hands. You can see the love and it’s intoxicating.”

She also commented about the deep connections that are inherently revealed in the process.

“It’s not just about a canoe. It’s [about] what is the canoe? It’s the trees – and then what is it doing? It’s in the water right? And it has all these aspects – like how important is water, how does water affect everything else?” commented Collins. “You’re not just building a canoe, you’re building a whole entire revitalization, it’s about remembering and it’s so beautiful.”

Local participant Sherri-Anne Medema was a consistent presence throughout the build. She says the experience actually changed her life and she was able to reconnect with Mother Earth in a profound way.

“Well it’s really powerful, it’s like spiritual feast and it’s really helped me out – kind of like put things in perspective,” expressed Medema. “Like being here and watching, and partaking in the build, it has been life-changing for me…And it’s been fun to watch. Watch the students and the community come together and the glow they have, like everyone has this glow when they’re working here. I loved it.”

Barbara Wall related that jiimaanke wiigwossi has been a transformative process for her as a participant. She was able to build a profound respect and relationship with wiigwossatig and that getting to know these materials and how to work with them has enriched her understanding of all that our relatives the birch, the cedar, the spruce, and pine tree provide for us.

“Jiimaanke is not only about building a canoe, but also about building relationships between participants and creating relationships with beings from which the materials have been harvested,” stated Wall. “It’s a project of resilience, relationality and love.”

The completed wiigwossi jiimaan will live in the Gathering Space in Enweying/First People’s House of Learning at Trent University. She will be secured by a pulley system, so that she can be taken down and used. A canoe family has been created and has learned how to care for and maintain her.

The power of jiimaanke wiigwossi is magical. It birthed something new and beautiful in the depths of an entrenched symbol of western knowledge; it brought together people of diverse nations; it reconnected people to the earth and her gifts; it evoked deep emotions and spiritual awareness; and in its finished form, it embodies the heart and soul of a community.

There is an awe-inspiring power in knowledge and in the sharing of it. Gikendaasowin (the knowledge) ignited a resurgence and brought with it teachings about resiliency, relationality, love, remembering, revitalization, reclamation, sovereignty, and survival.

Miigwech jiimaanke wiigwossi for sharing your wisdom and for gifting us with Mina Mashkiki.