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Madison Students Revive Wisconsin History with Modern-Made Birch Bark Canoe

Students are using modern technology to build a Native American birch bark canoe; in doing so, they're keeping a part of Wisconsin history alive. In a new class offered through a partnership with the local office of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Madison junior high and high school students built a plywood reconstruction of the boats used by Wisconsin tribes for centuries.

Gene Delcourt, a woodshop instructor, directed the class. He learned the skill from a German YouTuber and a master Ojibwe canoe maker. Delcourt previously studied the art of canoe making when he traveled to Lac du Flambeau in 2021 and learned from expert builder Wayne Valliere of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Delcourt had also built three canoes at a Monona alternative school.

Valliere took Delcourt to cut cedar trees to make part of the canoe's hull and showed him how to harvest black spruce root into rope. Even with Valliere's help, Delcourt was still advised not to get his hopes up about how the canoe would turn out since it is a complicated process.

To teach the students, Delcourt has adapted the techniques he learned to make them more practical and less time-consuming. After working with Valliere, he wanted to improve his skills and started watching Hans-Georg Wagner, a German wood designer and sculptor, on YouTube. Wagner builds "birch-bark style" canoes using thin pieces of plywood instead of birch bark. This technique calls for soaking and steaming the plywood and then bending it. Since this method is faster than finding and harvesting birch trees, this is the method Delcourt used with his students. Another modification was using a parachute cord instead of spruce root, which would need to be boiled, peeled, and split three times – a tedious job even for a trained hand.

Once the canoe was finished, the last step was to decorate it. Students got to choose an animal design to paint on it. They decided on a giraffe, eagle, wolf, and many more animals, but the most significant part was the handprint of each of the students. "For the Ojibwe people, a big thing is community and doing things together," said Kyen Schreiber, a 15-year-old student who is a member of a Canadian indigenous tribe. "That's a big part of most cultures."

The process took longer than expected, nearly three times as long. The group finished the canoe at the end of January and celebrated with a community feast. As of April, the canoe is on display at Midvale Elementary School. Delcourt will reunite the class when the weather gets nicer and go on a test ride navigating from Lake Monona to Navigatendota on the Yahara River. Students are looking forward to seeing their work and effort in use.

[Source: The Capital Times]

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