May 15, 2015

The Return of the Native

Ojibwe language students build birchbark canoe

Riding high on the water despite having eight paddlers aboard, a birchbark canoe cut swiftly across the surface of Puffer’s Pond on its first voyage, at high noon on May 2nd.

The canoe was hand-built by Five College students and Howard Kimewon, a visiting lecturer in the anthropology department. Its skin and ribs are white birch, bound by basswood fibers, and its seats are white ash.

It is the seventh birchbark canoe Kimewon, a native Anishinaabemowin speaker, has built in his life. He built this one with the help of students who study indigenous foodways, plant medicines, and anthropology, guiding them with instruction in his first language.

Kimewon, was born and raised on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. A collaboration among the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages, the Department of Anthropology, Amherst College, and the Native and Indigenous Studies Certificate Program supported his teaching.

Immersion in a canoe-building project is an innovative way to highlight the importance of water in the Anishinaabe language and culture indigenous to the Great Lakes region. For instance, in Anishinaabemowin, notkwemahza is a verb that means “he or she passes by in a canoe, singing a love song to [their]sweetheart”—one word that all by itself manages to convey motion, presence in a vehicle, two actions, mood, and a subject-object relationship.

Kimewon says the jiiman, or canoe, will have a hole burned in the left-hand side of the bow seat. The hole, placed where the watercraft’s heart would be, will in effect bring the canoe to life. “It’s got to be alive to keep us alive,” states Kimewon. Anishinaabemowin has a strong animistic principle embedded in the language: your car, for example, has a spirit because it is yours. A pencil becomes animate when it expresses life by writing.

Kimewon will now take the canoe to the Midwest, where he plans to pilot it across Lake Michigan.

“200 years ago, these canoes were alive, on the Great Lakes—they were everywhere,” pronounces Kimewon with admiration and awe.

Birch Bark Canoe Launch