Ojibwe canoe under construction, bound for Russia 5-4-07

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) - Marvin DeFoe's latest canoe will travel a lot farther than his first.

DeFoe paddled his first birch bark canoe down the Mississippi River - as far as he could get, that is, before winter closed the river in front of him. That was back in 1976, when he was 18.

This week, DeFoe worked on his latest traditional Ojibwe canoe, an artful mix of bark, root and resin. The Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe will ship the unfinished canoe to Petrozavodsk, Russia, to be part of an international boat-building summit.

Six students from Fond du Lac, accompanied by chaperones, will follow in June to complete the canoe with Russian students.

The project is the first direct partnership between the Fond du Lac band and Duluths Sister Cities commission, said Edwin Haller, a past president of the commission. He and his wife, Irina, plan to accompany the group as cultural guides.

The objective of the summit is to bring together people from different cultures over something they have in common - watercraft. Haller said he expects to see fishing boats and flat-bottomed boats from other cultures. Choosing a traditional canoe as the most culturally representative boat from Ojibwe lands was easy, Haller said.

This week, DeFoe held two tiny wooden dowels in his mouth as he knelt beside the canoe. He coated the dowels with glue and pressed them into place to secure the canoes cedar crosspieces.

Curved bundles of canoe ribs were stacked nearby, and coils of spruce roots to lash the ribs in place were soaking in a bucket. Everything DeFoe needed was gathered in the forest.

It was the third canoe that DeFoe, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe in Wisconsin, had worked on at the Fond du Lac Cultural Museum, where director Jeff Savage has organized several classes on traditional arts.

DeFoe said it's hard to find students willing to take time to learn the craft, from harvesting materials to sealing the last seam.

Kyra Paitrick, granddaughter of a Fond du Lac band member, will go to Russia as a student and a chaperone. She said she has wanted to learn all she can about the history of canoes and their role in Ojibwe life.

“I know how hard it is to learn the authentic pieces of my culture,” she said. “So much has been lost.”

Paitrick, 22, is a student of Ojibwe language, education and American Indian studies at the College of St. Scholastica. She wants to pass along what she is learning.

The solo canoe going to Russia is a blend of old and new techniques. Torque screws are holding part of the canoe together, and DeFoe used wood clamps to hold parts in place while he worked.

But the design and building process hasn't changed much in centuries, he said.

“I build these canoes to use,” he said, promising they will “last you a lifetime.”

Savage took one of the museums canoes out one fall and gave all the Fond du Lac Ojibwe schools preschool students a ride.

“It was the best canoe I ever paddled in my life,” Savage said. “Its like a living thing, made from materials that live near water, by the water, in the water; things that are just naturally supposed to be there.”