An Ojibwa embarks on a tribal spearfishing expedition in northern Wisconsin

LAC DU FLAMBEAU – People along the shore were shouting “Good luck, Wayne!” as Wayne Valliere paddled through the starry night in his birchbark canoe loaded with torches and equipped with a handmade spear.

One of his goals was to show how these ancient techniques can be just as effective, if not better, than modern practices for harvesting fish.

“It hasn’t been done this way for 200 years,” Valliere, 56, said. “This birch bark canoe is made as it was 500 years ago. Everything was assembled with natural materials.

The Ojibwe Lac du Flambeau (Lake of Torches) reservation, where Vallière lives and works as a tribal citizen, takes its name from 17th-century French explorers who marveled at the way the Ojibwe people filled the lakes with torches during the night in the spring on their canoes hunting walleye.

Fishing is done at night in the spring because that’s when the walleye move to the shallows to spawn, which makes it easier to catch them.

Today, tribal citizens exercise their right to fish underwater using modern fishing boats, small searchlights and metal spears.

But Valliere, whose Ojibwe name is Mino-Giizhig, is trying to revive traditional customs before they are lost forever.

Wayne Valliere prepares his handmade birchbark canoe and spear.

And it doesn’t stop at spearfishing.

At the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Elementary School on the reserve, Vallière teaches students a range of traditional activities, including maple sugar production, deer hide tanning and even tobacco growing.

Tobacco, or asemaa, is used in traditional ceremonies where it is sprinkled on the ground to thank the Creator before harvesting anything from the wild.

“It’s not about teaching culture, it’s about teaching culturally,” Valliere said.

Rather than explaining these practices from a book to memorizing test answers, this is a hands-on, experiential approach by showing students how it’s done and having them do it.

“We teach in three dimensions, using all the senses,” he said.

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Traditional teaching

Valliere has been learning traditional crafts from his ancestors since he was 14, after tribal elders in the 1970s encouraged him to learn what he could before the people lost him.

“It’s been a journey for me since I was a young kid,” Valliere said. “There has been a great cultural loss. … My family was a traditional hunting and gathering family. That’s how we ate. »

Wayne Valliere (left) joins the students in a traditional song.

He began his artistic journey painting scenes of traditional and historical Anishinaabe life and quickly developed a passion for recreating some of the craftsmanship he depicted on his canvas.

Valliere learned from elders, such as the late Joe Chosa and Ojaanimigiizhig, and began creating beads, pipes, weapons, and other crafts.

He even reverse-engineered artifacts he discovered in museums.

But Vallière is probably best known for building traditional birchbark canoes.

Having built more than 30 birchbark canoes to date, he is considered a master builder and said it took about two months of total labor to make just one.

Wayne Valliere and his apprentice Lawrence Mann use a handmade birchbark canoe and other traditional gear to spear fish.

The canoe building process begins with the hard work of finding the right mature birch of a certain length that can withstand the right amount of stress.

Next, Vallière needs cedar roots to sew crafts, and the roots can only be harvested at a different time of year than birch.

He is one of the few traditional canoe builders in the world, and he believes that canoes are more than just watercraft.

“These canoes carry our culture,” he said.

In 2020, Valliere was one of nine traditional artists from across the country selected for a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts for his birchbark canoe work.

Spearfishing an important tradition

Vallière and his canoes are often the subject of documentaries. Filmmaker Michael Raymond is working with him to produce a series of educational videos for a new nonprofit they’ve started together called Niigaan.

Raymond went out to film Valliere in early May on Lake Pokegama on the reservation near the Lake of the Torches casino.

About two dozen students also took part in the experiment, some helping to document Vallière’s activities on his birchbark canoe and others trying out spearfishing in a modern way.

Spearfishing remains an important tradition for the Ojibwa people, as Valliere and others had fought for the right to spearfish in the 1980s and 1990s.

Wayne Valliere and his apprentice Lawrence Mann use a handmade birchbark canoe and other traditional gear to spear fish.

Ojibwa rights to hunt and fish off reservation in what is known as the Ceded Territory, which includes much of Wisconsin‘s Northwoods, were guaranteed by U.S. and tribal laws through early to mid-century treaties. 19th century in exchange for the government taking Ojibway land.

The Wisconsin state government had ignored or eventually forgotten these treaty rights after statehood, but the Anishinaabe still sometimes exercised their rights clandestinely to feed their families and risked being cited or arrested by the guards. -State hunting.

Then, in 1974, brothers Fred and Mike Tribble, who are citizens of the Lac Courtes Oreilles Tribe in Wisconsin, alerted the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that they intended to fish off the reservation and were charged. .

The brothers challenged the citations in federal court and won against the state in a 1983 decision known as the Voigt decision. Over the next few years, judges repeatedly upheld the Anishinaabe people’s right to fish and hunt off-reserve in later rulings and overturned state appeals.

Dozens of Anishinaabe then began coming to the landings to exercise their civil rights weeks before the start of the non-tribal fishing season, to the anger of locals.

Hundreds and thousands of anti-treaty protesters also began marching to the landings in the late 1980s, complaining that the Anishinaabe were harming fish populations and hurting tourism in the area.

Clashes between many people quickly escalated and stone-throwing, gunfire, death threats and racial and sexual taunts soon became commonplace, according to multiple reports.

Valliere recalls that at the time he was often on one of two boats on a lake surrounded by thousands of angry protesters on the shore.

Wayne Valliere and his apprentice, Lawrence Mann, examine a handmade spear they will use for spearfishing.

Tribal officials said incidents of harassment of underwater fishermen still occur every season, but many go unreported.

Those who oppose spearfishing argue that it harms fish populations, but state officials say that’s not true.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources sets safe harvest amounts for each lake, such that there is less than a 1 in 40 chance that more than 35% of the adult walleye population will be harvested by tribal and recreational fishers. combined.

“Some people say that an extra crop is given to the tribesmen, which is not true,” said Todd Ambs, former deputy assistant secretary of the DNR. “Other (non-tribal) fishermen harvested a lot more.”

There are about 500 tribal harpoons versus about 2 million licensed anglers in the state, Ambs said.

Since 1989, the total tribal harvest of walleye in the ceded territory has averaged about 28,000 per year, according to a joint tribal, state and federal report.

Tribal fisheries on reservations produced more than 15 million walleye eggs in 2018, of which more than 121,000 reached long-growing fry and were released into Northwoods Lakes.

Tribal officials have reported that these hatcheries help replenish declining fish populations that can be caused by warming waters, shoreline development and invasive species.

Back on the lake

Valliere had special permission from tribal authorities to travel to Pokegama Lake with his birchbark canoe and torches this spring. Before leaving, he and the students sang and beat drums to mark the momentous occasion.

After about two hours on the water, Vallière and his apprentice, Lawrence Mann, couldn’t catch any fish.

Some spearfishers on modern boats have been able to catch a few, but not as many as normal for the season.

There was still ice in the water a few days earlier and Vallière complained that a lot of the walleye hadn’t started spawning yet, so there just wasn’t any walleye to catch in shallow waters.

Despite the lack of catches, he considered the venture a success as it was an important lesson for his students who were simply out on the water with traditional tools.

“We show that we still know how to do it that way,” Valliere said. “We cannot forget our old ways.”

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Frank Vaisvilas is a Report for America Green Bay Press-Gazette-based corps member covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible donation to this reporting effort at

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