Canoes still popular

Published 9:35 am Thursday, May 4, 2006

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC - A “renaissance” in building birch bark canoes shows no sign of abating well into its second decade, a Pokagon Band member said Wednesday night at The Museum at Southwestern Michigan College.
In fact, said John Low of Niles, “More and more people are engaging in a revival of traditional building. Individuals and small groups of Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa Indians have initiated such projects.
To Low, who traveled to Guam last summer to meet with master builders, a canoe is not only the “product of indigenous engineering genius,” but also a symbol, “a rich metaphor for carrying Great Lakes indigenous peoples into their futures on our terms.”
An effort to collect and preserve the culture of indigenous peoples occurred “presumably because we were going to disappear,” Low said. “The delicious irony is that we did not disappear - nor did our traditions, although sometimes they were preserved in part by ethnologists. Indian peoples are cautiously appreciative of the attention paid to them and their cultures and indebted for what documentation and preservation were done by non-Natives. We recognize this. Had this not been done, much might have been lost during the last 500 years.
The 10-county Pokagon Band based in Dowagiac is part of the revival.
The tribe applied for and was awarded a Michigan Native American Foundation mini-grant in 2003 to reach Native youth and to engage them in the process of gathering materials to construct a traditional 16-foot canoe.
The project to complete two canoes is still under way. A language component will further help elders pass on their knowledge to younger generations.
An instructional video will document the construction process and associated Potawatomi vocabulary.
Building a birch bark canoe becomes “an effort to mark, re-establish and re-assert the uniqueness of a community's history and practices and the importance of that legacy to its future,” Low said.
In the Three Fires Confederacy, the Potawatomi are the “Keepers of the Fire.” They refer to themselves as Anishnaabe, which roughly translated means “the original people” or “the true humans.”
Non-Natives have also been “enamored” with canoes, Low said, from early eras of fur trade and exploration to romance, art, poetry and commerce.
Low read Longfellow's “Song of Hiawatha” from 1855 as an “appropriate example of this embrace of canoes by non-Natives.”
He showed examples of products canoes pushed, including locally, Round Oak stoves and Heddon's fishing lures, plus potables, candy, medicine, canned goods, fresh fruit, vegetables and even toothpicks on his “list of misappropriations” and a tacky toy canoe of the type sold in souvenir stands.
Low's last installment in the museum's spring lecture series provided a prelude to an exhibit on Potawatomi Indians and the Dowagiac-based Pokagon Band running June 21 through December. July's brown bag lunch series may also focus on Native Americans, Director Steve Arseneau said.
Low said he grew up on the St. Joseph River. He is a Turtle Clan member. His last talk was at an American Indian museum in Evanston, Ill.
Low introduced the topic by showing an excerpt from the 1994 WNIT program, “Keepers of the Fire,” featuring the late Mark Alexis and Mike Daugherty talking about canoe building. The clip also mentioned Dan Rapp and Greg Ballew. Ballew and Mike's son, Kevin Daugherty, were in the audience.