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MONTE DRAPER | BEMIDJI PIONEER Jim Jones Jr., right, takes one last measurement before he and his students prepare to fold the bark around a birch bark canoe frame as (from left) Allan Smith, Terry Larson and William Jones help hold a canoe built last year by Jones.

Made by hand: Man guides community members in hand making a birch bark canoe

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CASS LAKE -- The finish date is Aug. 2, but Jim Jones Jr. feels confident.

With members of the area community, Jones is in the process of building a birch bark canoe, which he thinks will be finished well before the original set completion date.

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"Once we have everything prepped, it will go pretty quick," Jones said. "The biggest part of building a canoe is gathering the material for it."

Jones works for the Minnesota Indian First Council, but is teaching this class, and building this canoe, at the Leech Lake Tribal College.

In 2010, Jones was featured on Lakeland television building a 15-foot, old-style Ojibwe birch bark canoe.

Since the video, a number of people had been asking within the tribal community - especially at Leech Lake - when he was going to do another canoe so more people could learn, Jones said.

"I started a conversation with the tribal college here about it, about two years ago I think it was, talking about the idea of doing a canoe jointly together," Jones said. "And then opening it up to community members and people of the public within the Cass Lake/Bemidji area."

Much of the funding came through the Five Wings Arts Council. Through the local regional art council, the tribal college applied for a grant and received a Arts and Cultural Heritage grant through the arts council out of Staples-Motley, Jones said.

This past Tuesday afternoon, in the blaring sun and heat, Jones was instructing those who were participating on how to make make the lacings for the canoe, made from dug up spruce roots found earlier that day near Lake Winnibigoshish.

"I know for a fact we didn't get enough roots," Jones said. "But we will get more tomorrow (Wednesday) morning."

With blueprints and books on the bed of his truck, Jones explained the mathematics and engineering that goes into creating the canoe. For a novice eye, the numbers look daunting, but to Jones, it seems to comes naturally.

Jones said in 2002, he started building birch bark canoes with Grant Goltz, who is from the Hackensack-Longville area. That year, they made a Fur Trade-era canoe for six Frenchmen, who took it from the northwest coast all the way up to Hudson Bay in Ontario.

"Working with Grant, showing me these plans and actually doing the actual canoe on the ground, building them, and then understanding when it came to looking at these plans. . . how to use the mathematics all of it, all the sciences on how to cut," Jones said.

But, Jones added, you can have all the math, engineering and science you want; if you don't have a good quality wood, it won't work. Most important, he says, is the "quality of the bark you need to build a canoe like this."

This canoe will be 16 feet long and is based on a late 1800s Ojibwe style canoe, Jones said.

Based on schematics out of the book, "Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America," Jones tweaked various elements from different canoes for this plan. It will be almost 3 feet wide in the middle. It will be 14 inches deep, though they might shoot for 15 inches.

"I want a deeper canoe because it's more stable, and it will be a better traveling canoe, as well," Jones said.

Once the canoe is finished, it will become the property of the Leech Lake Tribal College.

"When it's finished, they will put it on display," Jones said. "But I hope they use it. People ask me how to upkeep a canoe and I tell them you have to feed 'em. The way you feed a birch bark canoe is to put them in the water. Take them out on the lake"

The project is free and open to the public. It goes Monday through Friday.

"But we are talking about being here on the weekend," Jones said. "If we work on the weekends, I know we will finish this a lot quicker."

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Joe Froemming
Joe Froemming is a reporter/copy editor for the Bemidji Pioneer. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephBemidji
(218) 333-9200 x327
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