Mounds accepts gift of student-made birchbark canoe

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

A special collaborative project has brought a brand-new, but traditionally-made birchbark canoe to Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre to serve as a showpiece and symbol of reconciliation for years to come.

In a special ceremony held at the centre, also known as Manitou Mounds, on Thursday, June 22, 2023, students from Algonquin Avenue Public School in Thunder Bay delivered a hand-made birchbark canoe. The canoe itself was created by Grade 8 students from the school, along with input from community members, Thunder Bay-area elders and Lakehead University staff and students, and was the culmination of a year of work using traditional Anishinaabe methods.

Also delivered alongside the canoe were a pair of ricing sticks, traditionally used during harvest to pull wild rice plants over the canoe’s edge and then beat the grains off the plant where they are then collected at the bottom of the watercraft, as well as a hand-carved paddle.

Darren Lentz is the principal at Algonquin Avenue Public School, and he shared that the canoe project was part of a curriculum that sought to teach their students through an Indigenous lens and with teachings from Anishinaabe knowledge keepers.

“It was a real collaboration, this project, with a variety of folks, including Lakehead University’s Indigenous learning class, but also our Grade 8 graduating class, who are the builders of this craft,” Lentz said.

“They spent time going out on the land to harvest the material and we also had the help of knowledge keepers in Fort William First Nation. The whole project is about four main things, and those things really came from the elders and the education process which was practiced so long ago and we’re trying to get back to, is community, culture, language and land. And those four concepts really resonated and are part of the canoe building process, leaning the language, learning the culture and the traditions and teachings that go into harvesting and being on the land, and then all the community coming together.”

Lentz noted that even with assistance from outside the classroom, it took roughly 250 hours of work to bring the canoe together, from collecting the raw materials to learning how to work them into the canoe, and even to more decorative elements of the canoe which includes intricate etchings of sturgeons along each side. Lentz noted that as much as the project was about learning these traditional crafts, along with culture, language and more, the end goal was also to give back some of what they learned, both through the canoe itself, as well as the knowledge the students gained through the process.

“That’s why we wanted to donate to some place that’s been doing so much amazing work, and Rainy River First Nations is on the leading edge of developing this kind of centre honouring those traditions and culture and the land,” he said.

“Building the canoe and gifting it to them was sort of teaching the kids to give back to their community, that reciprocity piece… The great thing is, lots of other kids in the school got to see the project coming to fruition. Yesterday, we took a whole community picture of our whole school on Indigenous People’s Day to show them this technology. The little kids got to come check it out, and as different things were being put into the canoe, the other grades would bring the kids up and our kids got to teach them about the birch bark canoe and the building process. And so they became the teachers.”

Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung archivist and grant manager Jessie Richard said the whole project has been a boon to the centre, seeing as the birchbark canoe they previously had on display was beginning to show its age and wear out, so receiving the new canoe from the school means that future visitors to the centre will still get to see something traditionally made on display in its place.

“It was really cool to watch that process,” Richard said.

“They’ve been amazing to send photos throughout the months showing the different kids working on it through the different semesters. And while they’ve been doing it, they’ve also been working on self-awareness projects and how they feel connecting with the community, with elders, and learning more of the history and stories. And it’s been really fantastic to watch that. We’re so, so thankful to have [the canoe] here, and to have a little piece of each of the students here at the centre and preserved forever.”

Also on hand during the delivery of the canoe was Rainy River First Nations chief Marcel Medicine-Horton, who thanked the students profusely for the donation of the canoe. Medicine-Horton reflected that he had spent many harvests as a young boy and teenager in a canoe very similar to the one delivered that day, and that works like this, bringing together Anishinaabe and non-Anishinaabe people to share in traditional knowledge and teachings is part of what he believes reconciliation is all about.

“We hear this word, ‘reconciliation’ quite a bit here, but in June of 2023, this truly is 100 per cent reconciliation, this is what it’s about,” he said.

“Many of us, when we were kids, we all spent time in these. We were out there thrashing wild rice, we were out there harvesting for three weeks every August. For the 1,300 people that belong to Rainy River First Nations, I guarantee that every person to a tee is going to absolutely love this and cherish this and respect it, and we truly don’t understand the generosity but, goodness, in this day and age, we will gladly accept it. ”

Lentz noted that the canoe project lent itself well to not only teaching students about Anishinaabe culture and language, but also helped to implement many of the things that the school looks to teach their students through the provincial curriculum as well. He said he hoped the students would take the things they learned throughout the project out with them into the world and help to further the cause of reconciliation.

“Dr. Murray Sinclair always said, ‘education got us into this mess, education will get us out,’” Lentz said.

“We’re not only educating students, but we’re using Anishinaabe way of educating through community, culture, language, and land to educate students. Using an Indigenous learning lens, we’re giving back this knowledge that’s so important for student’s learning, but giving it back with that reciprocity piece.”