the early 1960s, Jim Hanks Sr. was the last member of the Mille
Lacs Band of Ojibwe with the expertise and knowledge to build
an authentic birchbark canoe. Earl Mitchell plans to change that.
the last several weeks, Mitchell and several other local people
built a birchbark canoe with guidance from expert builder John Lindman
at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum.
Mitchell, 68, said that in his youth, he built several birchbark
canoes, but they weren't authentic or very seaworthy. "We
had fun. We built them just to get across the river," he said.
wants to keep the tradition alive by teaching young people the art
of canoe building. "Lots of people have recollections of their
families building canoes," he said. But unfortunately no one
learned how to do it, he said.
Mitchell family's activity was netting fish. He complained that
his mother always gave the best walleyes to the deer hunters, but
they were rewarded with choice loins during hunting season. They
lived by the philosophy, "I'll scratch your back if you scratch
mine," Mitchell said.
his early 20s, Mitchell said he worked as a tour guide at Fort Mille
Lacs, a former tourist attraction on the west side of the lake,
at the same time Hanks was there building canoes.
said he first met Hanks on the day Hanks' son died. Hanks told Mitchell
that he looked exactly like his deceased son, so he adopted Mitchell
"in the Indian way." Mitchell asked him to teach him the
art of birchbark canoe building, but Hanks said that the time for
them was in the past. People were using aluminum and fiberglass
completion of the canoe at the museum, Mitchell planned to camp
in Pine City where Lindman was scheduled to teach another canoe
building class starting July 21 at the Northwest Fur Trading Post.
The finished canoe in Pine City will be offered for sale.
plans to return to Mille Lacs and build a canoe at the Nay Ah Shing
School. By then, Mitchell said he hopes to have the expertise to
pass on the to the generations of Ojibwe.
who is fluent in Ojibwe and has done extensive reading and studying
on the history of his people, believes that isolating the American
Indians on reservations and giving them all of their basic needs
contributed to the loss of knowledge of their traditions.
were a very busy people. There were a lot of things to do, and everything
was done outside. They didn't go back inside until they were ready
to go to sleep," Mitchell said. Around 1945, at the end of
WWII, everything changed for Indian people. "They were more
accepted in society. They could move into town. They didn't have
to stay in the village."
Lindman has had other faithful students at the Mille Lacs Indian
Museum to help and learn, including Tom Jackson of Wahkon, Ben Collis,
a "cabin and dog sitter" from Minneapolis and Paul Day,
a judge for the Mille Lacs Band.
native of the Pacific Northwest, Lindman has built 11 full-size
birchbark canoes and six smaller ones. He does all the work with
hand tools using authentic materials and methods. The process usually
takes about a month, including time to gather the materials.
framework of the canoe is made with white cedar. The cedar for this
project was obtained from a sawmill in Big Falls.
birchbark can be found in the area, however, it is very scarce.
This may be attributed to a combination of conditions such as acid
rain, drought, birch borers and clear cutting with no birch being
replanted. The bark for the Mille Lacs canoe was imported from Russia.
the lashing, several different materials may be used including tamarack
and jackpine roots, but Lindman said he prefers the root of the
black spruce. Immediately after harvesting the roots, the bark is
stripped from it. Soaking in water releases a compound, tannin,
which will produce a darker color lashing to contrast with the lighter
bark and wood.
the traditional method, after the framework is built, the bark is
rolled out on a smooth patch of ground. The frame is put on the
bark which is weighted down with rocks. Cuts are made in the bark
where needed to go around gunnels. After it is formed around the
frame, the bark is held in place with stakes.
bark is stitched where necessary for construction. The bottom is
sheathed, the ribs are formed, and the thwarts are lashed in place.
The final step is to put pitch, made by boiling tree sap and bear
fat, on seams to make the craft waterproof.
a testament to how the native people were in touch with the environment.
The birchbark canoe is where it all comes together," Lindman
display during the building process was an old style Algonquin canoe
built previously by Lindman. The new canoe for the museum is an
Ojibwe longnose, a pattern believed to have been copied from the
museum video taped the process. There is still an opportunity to
see the canoe building project at the Northwest Fur Trading Post.