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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 11, 2001 - Issue 42


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Birch Canoe Brings Back Memories and Traditions


 by Angie Riebe The Mesabi Daily News-July 29, 2001


NETT LAKE, MN - While June Porter diligently stitches together the honey-colored birch bark forming the outside of the canoe, Hank Goodsky asks the young firetender how the ribs are doing.

The ribs had been cooking in a large metal container for several hours over an open, crackling, smoky campfire.

"They smell good," says Jim Chi-nodin Lightfeather.

"Do you want to try our ribs?" asks Hank Goodsky.

Then he smiles.

The "ribs" are thin strips of cedar that will be bent widthwise across the inside of the canoe to hold down the floorboards.

For the Anishinabe people working on the birch bark canoe -- which will be displayed in the upcoming Bois Forte Cultural Heritage Center in Tower -- is a a sacred experience.

And it's a time of learning -- a time for the passing on a tradition.

Hank Goodsky and his brother, Gene Goodsky, have been crafting the canoe for about two weeks in addition to the preparation work of gathering wood and constructing shaping boards and other tools.

And they have been joined by others who have helped at various stages.

Boil and bend
On most days, work begins early in the morning. A fire is started near the shore of Nett Lake to boil the wood to be bent. Then the crew gets started on whatever needs to be done for that day. The labor continues until sundown.

"It's really hard work," Lightfeather said. But it's made easier by friendship and storytelling.

"Everyone's joking around," said Audrey Lumbar, of Bemidji, who was in Nett Lake with her 11-year-old daughter, Roxanne Fairbanks, for a funeral.

"It's supposed to be a sad time," she said. But the work and jovial conversation "keeps your mind off bad stuff."

Feel the spirits
Hank Goodsky has worked on a few canoes prior to this one, he said. And he remembers watching one being built in the early 1940s. "We were small," he said. But he still recalls some of the techniques used.

As work on the canoe progresses, "there are more things remembered," Gene Goodsky said.

Those who have worked on the canoe say they know the supernatural world and the spirits of their ancestors have also helped them through the construction.

Hank Goodsky said he can feel the spirits. "They're watching us. I know the spirits are here with us."

Many steps
The Goodsky brothers began work on the canoe by searching for birch trees to cut, with permission from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, for the canoe's exterior.

Birch bark can be peeled from the trees from about the end of June to early July, otherwise it "sticks" and cannot easily be removed, Hank Goodsky said.

For the base of the canoe, a tree 48 inches in circumference was used. In the Anishinabe tradition of respect for any living thing that is used for human purposes, tobacco was first placed at the base of the tree as an offering for the spirit of the tree.

Once the birch bark had been collected, they pulled up black spruce roots to use for lacing.

The process included sewing five pieces of birch bark together -- with the white bark toward the inside of the canoe and the tan, smooth side toward the outside. They were formed around a wooden frame modeled in the shape of the 15-foot craft.

Strips of cedar were cut, sanded, and molded, and cross pieces and end pieces were cut and put into place to form the main structure of the canoe. More strips of cedar were used for the floorboards.

Many ribs were then delicately formed to fit perfectly across the canoe. They were pounded into place and sewn to the frame.

The birch bark also was deliberately cracked in places and sewn back together to allow for shrinkage, Hank Goodsky said.

The last step would be to tar the holes around the seams.

Full of emotion
Building the canoe is "like bringing something alive -- creating something," Hank Goodsky said.

The "water and everything we use" to make the canoe -- including the birch, cedar and spruce woods -- are "sacred to us," Lightfeather said.

In the Anishinabe tradition, a ceremony -- including offerings of food and hand tools or blankets to the spiritual world -- will be performed for the canoe.

Although the canoe is being built as part of a permanent exhibit, it will be taken onto the lake as part of a launching ceremony. It will be paddled by someone who worked on the canoe.

Hank Goodsky said it will be a ceremony full of emotion. He imagines that watching it float across the lake will be like watching "a leaf or feather floating on the water" on a calm day.

At the end of each day, Lightfeather said he has felt tired, but "it's a good feeling. It's a good tired. It's a fulfilled tired."

And he plans to make good use of his new knowledge.

"I hope to take it and pass it on," he said. "I'm not going to let this go."


  Maps by Travel


Constuction of a Birch Bark Canoe
The first step in the construction of a birch bark canoe was the making of a frame or jig in the general shape of the canoe.

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