Volume 48 Number 1
Winter 2015

Rural Issues

Edited by Susana Helm

The Rural IG column highlights rural resources as well as the work of community psychologist and colleagues in their rural environments.  In this TCP we highlight the collaborative aspects of rural wellbeing through the work of academic disciplines beyond psychology, as described by folklorist Dr. Frandy in the brief report section below. 

Rural Resources

  • The National Association for Rural Mental Health ( announced that its annual conference will be in Honolulu next summer (Hyatt Regency Waikiki, 7/30/15-8/2/15).  I hope to see some of you here.
  • Health Resources Services Administration - Rural Health: The Office of Rural Health Policy (ORHP) coordinates activities related to rural health care within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ORHP has department-wide responsibility for analyzing the possible effects of policy on residents of rural communities.

Brief Report:  Birchbark Canoe Building and Decolonizing Health

Written by Tim Frandy, PhD (, Collaborative Center for Health Equity, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Many academics and health care professionals readily accept that culture is essential to the provision of effective health care, particularly within historically marginalized and underserved communities.  This is perhaps most evident in indigenous communities, where intact complexes of traditional healing coexist alongside Western medicine.  Although cultural sensitivity is recognized as vital in establishing successful university-community partnerships, initiatives, and programs, full inclusion of indigenous and traditional knowledge and knowledge production within Western-oriented universities remains a challenge.  Too often, cultural experts are relegated to giving a fundamentally Western project a name in the local language or crafting a logo using traditional design elements.  For those of us with backgrounds in Indigenous Studies, traditional knowledge, cultural worldview, and belief systems, it’s disappointing to see the “throw some feathers on it” approach used to masque a fundamentally Western initiative in scope, pretense, and aim.  While recognizing cultural differences is a meaningful first step, our interest lies in improving community health and wellness in ways that do not weaken–and in fact strengthen–cultural worldview, heritage, and indigenous epistemologies.  In some Native communities, these concerns have given rise to cultural-based programs designed to remedy complex social problems–including health disparities–through the strengthening of cultural identity.  

The great Northwoods surrounding Lake Superior, with its deep forests and vast inland waterways, is a distinct cultural region in the Upper Midwest, and it is the place I call home.  Soils are generally too poor to support profitable agriculture, and hunting, fishing, trapping, and harvesting wild plants and berries have continued as a means of informal economy for many of the region’s longtime inhabitants.  I have been working extensively in northern Wisconsin with members of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians–artists, woodsmen, hunters, fishermen, and cultural leaders–for about five years, and these partnerships increasingly have turned toward building culturally-based programming for Native youth in order to sustain and grow traditional culture and lifeways in the community.  As these initial efforts have formalized, we now have sustained institutional connections between Lac du Flambeau’s ENVISION Program (which uses indigenous methodologies to guide at-risk youth back onto the good path; see Figure 1 by Colin Connors) and Ojibwe Language and Culture Program and a number of UW-Madison departments and centers.  Each of these partners and individuals involved has enthusiastically consented to the promotion of our collaborative work (including this publication, and being acknowledged by name).


Like many indigenous communities, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians is in the midst of a cultural renaissance.  Traditional food harvesting, arts and crafts, song and dance, and ceremonies are blossoming in the community again. Every year the community breaks new barriers, like bringing back games like snowsnake throwing and traditional lacrosse (neither played for over a century), or re-learning how to build winter lodges (a sophisticated structure lost centuries ago).  It is in this spirit that we formed a partnership between Lac du Flambeau and UW-Madison in 2013 to improve the health of young people, strengthen cultural identity, reinforce indigenous knowledge production, and secure the art of birchbark canoe building for future generations (Watch videos from Wisconsin Public TV and the Big Ten Network:;; see also UW website:

An important symbol of the Anishinaabe way of life, the birchbark canoe–or wiigwaasi-jiimaan–was crucial in harvesting fish, wild rice, and game, and were essential tools of transport along the vast inland waterways of the Lake Superior Region.  Representing a pinnacle of Anishinaabe art and technology, these canoes represent one’s deep knowledge of the environment and one’s mastery of a dozens of artistic crafts and techniques.  Today, there are only three Native canoe-builders in Wisconsin: Wayne Valliere and Leon Valliere (brothers from Lac du Flambeau), and one of their teachers Marvin DeFoe (Red Cliff) (See Wisconsin Public TV video clip at  While many want to learn the craft, it requires a large time commitment.  One canoe takes two months of heavy work to build, and the process takes years to master.


In partnership, our community-university team developed a program to teach birchbark canoe building to youth in the ENVISION program (See Figure 2 by Tom DuBois).  Together we harvested natural materials in the summer in northern Wisconsin.  The materials were transported to Madison, and the canoe was constructed in the Art Department and documented by a team of folklorists.  Wayne Valliere, our master artist, and the ENVISION youth were present on site on a rotating basis.  Documentation was curated for a WordPress blog ( and Facebook page (, which kept a growing community (on- and off-campus) informed about the progress of this project.  Following the canoe’s completion, ceremonial launches were held in Madison and Lac du Flambeau.  In Lac du Flambeau, an all-school assembly was held, and students portaged the canoe over a mile to a nearby lake (See Figure 3 by Colin Connors).The UW purchased the canoe as a symbol of commitment to working with the tribes, and–since canoes are not supposed to hang on walls–we procured rights allowing the canoe to be used by Native student organizations.


While the canoe’s construction involves much artistry, craftsmanship, math, and physics, the harvest of the natural materials (birchbark for the hull, cedar for the gunwales and ribs, spruce roots for lashings and stitching, and pine pitch for waterproofing) is perhaps the most important part of the process.  Each material is harvested traditionally, in a manner that maximizes sustainable use (See Figure 4 by Tim Frandy). Hundreds of trees must be tested to find suitable materials, and this means walking in the deep woods, at distances up to ten miles daily, carrying heavy gear, and packing out heavy rolls of bark or quartered cedar logs on the shoulder.  This work continues for about a month, and in the woods, teaching is continuously happening.  Youth learn cultural history, learn about the relationship Anishinaabe people maintain with many of the forest’s plants, and learn the proper ceremonies used while harvesting.  On one instance, while struggling to find suitable birchbark, we were driving in the woods, and four otters crossed our path.  The otters, like canoeists who traverse both waters and land with grace, were showing us bark.  We followed them into the woods, only to find a forest full of beautiful canoe bark.  Bringing youth into this context allows us to spend time teaching the young people about otter, and how to understand how they speak to the Anishinaabe.


As a health and wellness program, the impacts of “Wiigwaasi-Jiimaan” far exceed the physical exercise and novelty of working on a traditional canoe.  Birchbark canoes are a prestige craft, notoriously difficult to construct.  Building a canoe is an act of empowering reclamation and revitalization for students.  The complexity of the task also develops positive and strong intergenerational social relationships.  Moreover, the project reinforces indigenous concepts of health.  Traditional teachings tell that healthful living involves balancing all four directions of the Medicine Wheel.  Wayne Valliere explains:  [Canoe building is] healthy for the four sides of self, the four directions of the Medicine Wheel: body, mind, emotions, and spirit.  It’s good for the body: it’s good physical exercise in the woods and building the canoe.  You get in good shape building a canoe with all that purposeful exercise.  It’s good for the mind: there’s all the math and physics of building a canoe.  Lots of problem solving.  For the emotions: canoe building and working outside make people happy.  And canoe building brings people together in friendship.  And for the spirit: you’re out in the bush, offering tobacco, talking to all kinds of spirits.  It’s good for your spirit in that way.  The four materials of the canoe are the four colors of the Medicine Wheel, and healing occurs as these materials come together: whether the physical exertion in the woods and the isometrics involved in its construction; whether the building of healthy social relationships, the achievement of difficult goals, and the reclamation of identity; whether the problem solving required in the canoe’s construction and the learning of cultural history; or whether the participation in ceremonies, the offering of tobacco, and the learning of sacred stories and songs.

University towns and rural (and particularly indigenous) communities have significant cultural and socioeconomic differences, and best practices for improving health and wellness naturally differ in these different community contexts.  In Native communities, building programs rooted in indigenous methodologies can be a particularly effective means of holistic care that strengthen identity and empower young people through cultural revitalization.  Such programs embrace the needs of the community, support indigenous knowledge production, reinforce cultural worldview, and ultimately improve the health outcomes in Native communities.  Yet in any rural community, creating fulfilling, emotionally-satisfying, and culturally-based programs that make full use of rural resources (forests, waters, wild foods), shared values (connection to place, extended families), and sense of identity and cultural history (food harvesting, traditional arts) offer important pathways toward healthy lifestyles that ultimately may have greater long-term impact on a community’s health.


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