DER Documentary

Earl's Canoe: A Traditional Ojibwe Craft

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by Thomas Vennum with Charles Weber
and participation of Earl Nyholm
color, 27 min / 58 min, 1999

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We meet Earl Nyholm, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, as he walks through the woods on Madeleine Island, Wisconsin. He's looking for just the right birch tree to select for the bark which will be used in the making of a traditional Ojibwe canoe. He talks about the respect that the Ojibwe People have for nature and for the spirit of the particular tree used in the making of a canoe following the traditions that had been handed down through the generations. We are told that this spot is a good one for building this canoe as Madeline Island was a sacred place and a center for the Ojibwe Nation in earlier times.

We watch the entire process from peeling the bark from the tree to shaping the form of the canoe with heavy rocks and then the elegant stitching together of the canoe's parts. Earl tells us that artists have always depicted birch bark canoes with the distinctive white pattern of the bark on the outside. This is a myth, as they are actually made with the white, outer bark of the tree, on the inside of the canoe.

While the task is arduous the work proceeds step by step with the help of other members of the Ojibwe Nation. The excellent camerawork allows us to see in great detail the ingenious process. While it is not as easy as going down to the local sporting goods shop and picking up an aluminum model, there is the sense of satisfaction knowing that the materials and the process are integrated with the natural environment and provide a spiritual link to the past. This program is suitable for all ages and will be very useful for anyone interested in canoe making, in the preserving of a Native American craft, in teaching Native American Studies, and anthropology.

A Traditional Ojibwe Craft was produced for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Winner, CINE Golden Eagle Award
Award of Commendation, Society for Visual Anthropology Film & Video Festival (AAA)
Finalist, Athens International Film Festival, 2001
Juror's Citation, Second Prize, Black Maria Film & Video Festival, 2000
Gottingen International Ethnographic Festival, 2000
Nashville Independent Film Festival, 2000
Brekenridge Film Festival, 2000
Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, 1999
Broadcasted on Wisconsin PBS channels as well as regionally on other PBS outlets

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Supported By Massachusetts Cultural Council National Endowment for the Humanities National Endowment for the Arts