The Neechee on the Land Graffiti Mural features an eagle looking out towards the Sleeping Giant over the Mt. McKay Pow Wow grounds.

By Rick Garrick

FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION—Fort William youth are enjoying the opportunity to work on two projects on Mt. McKay: the community’s third birchbark canoe and a Neechee on the Land Graffiti Mural.

“It’s a good time — we’re spending a lot of time learning about nature and learning about building canoes and our heritage,” says David Charlie, a Fort William mountain keeper who is working on his first birchbark canoe. “Right now, we’re just practicing using the tools so we know what we’re doing when we’re ready to build the canoe.”

Dylan Bannon, one of two mountain keepers who are working on their third birchbark canoe, says the project includes the gathering of raw materials for the canoe, such as spruce roots used to bind the canoe together.

“We have to go out into the bush and gather all of these materials,” Bannon says, noting that some of the spruce roots are up to 20-feet long. “We don’t get anything from the stores.”

Bannon says it is rewarding to build something from scratch out of raw materials.

“And then to watch it float is awesome,” Bannon says. “Before we started building canoes up here, there wasn’t anyone on our reserve that knew how to build canoes.”

Canoe builder Darren Lentz, an elementary school principal in Thunder Bay, was back for his third year of teaching the youth how to build a birchbark canoe. The project began on July 10 and will run for three-to-four weeks.

“When Darren and I first talked about doing this, we talked about doing it for five years,” says Gail Bannon, Fort William’s culture and recreation coordinator. “And after five years, we should have 20 students who know how to do this.”

Shanelle Charlie, a Fort William artist, says the Neechee on the Land Graffiti Mural project is “awesome.” The mural includes an eagle facing out from the north-east corner and a sweetgrass braid incorporated with water. It is the last of five Neechee on the Land Workshops done in partnership with Neechee Studio, which is part of Definitely Superior Art Gallery in Thunder Bay.

“It’s nice seeing everyone’s different point of views and stuff they want to incorporate [in the mural],” Shanelle says. “It’s going to look really awesome.”

Abby Pelletier, a youth worker with Fort William, says the youth were asked to create ideas about what connects them to the land.

“So that is where the inspiration for most of the stencils is coming from today,” Pelletier says. “Everybody has been giving their pieces and now it is just bringing it all to life.”

Cally Johnson, a mountain keeper, plans to make a medicine wheel stencil for the mural.

“The mural project is going great right now — the way they are painting it is going to look really great,” Johnson says, noting this is her second year as a mountain keeper. “I just love being up here, it’s a beautiful place. It’s a great place for me to work.”

Jeneen Frei Njootli, one of the mural project leaders from Vancouver, was excited about helping the youth to create their vision for the four-day, spray-paint mural project, which began on July 10.

“It’s great to hear what their own different perspectives are or to see some of their own sketches and what they want to bring out onto the wall,” Frei Njootli says. “You are able to accomplish a lot in a small amount of time and get some really cool effects with stencils.”