Our mission at Eastern Woodland Learning is to create an environment where each student can discover for him/herself Mother Earth's wisdom not only through exploration of the natural world but also through the study of primitive skills, local history, and Native American handicrafts and music. Our commitment to this purpose took us to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a week this summer to visit the husband-and-wife team of Jan Zender and Rochelle Dale, both of whom are highly skilled artisans of traditional crafts. Jan and Rochelle spent many years living on the Pine Ridge Reservation and now live off-the-grid, three miles from the nearest plowed road just outside of Big Bay, MI. In anticipation of our arrival, they worked tirelessly to complete a campsite on their property that included a covered community structure for cooking and dining, an outhouse, several tent sites, a wigwam, a lean-to, and an outdoor shower.
The wigwam was constructed of bent saplings, canvas, and tarps and had a door made of grass mats. The sleeping space was lined with fir sprigs and a bear skin.
The camp was situated near a creek so that we could easily access water for drinking, bathing, and dishes. The birch bark for the canoe we worked on was harvested many years ago and was re-hydrated in the creek for several days. Jan dipped a large kettle into a large vat of boiling water to pour on the bark and soften it even further as we rolled it out and shaped it around a prepared template.
The canoe will be lashed together with spruce roots. The roots must first be stripped of their dark outer coating which reveals a supple and strong pale interior that native people used for many purposes. With Rochelle's expertise and assistance, Elizabeth and Alicia crafted a lovely birch bark trashcan for the new outhouse with some of the spruce roots we prepared.
We were all introduced to the sport of tomahawk throwing. After several hours of serious wood chopping for the group, Jan rewarded the boys with their own tomahawk that we brought back with us to EWL for continued practice and good times.
Jan and Rochelle raise rabbits, have a large garden, and even cultivate shiitake mushrooms. They explained how to drill then soak the logs before injecting them with spores that are then sealed into the log with wax. Successful cultivation depends on maintaining a diligent schedule of soaking the logs. We have high hopes of cultivating our own mushrooms in the near future.
These are just a few of the many adventures we had while with Jan and Rochelle. Our group was extremely grateful for their willingness to share their deep knowledge and skills with us, as well as their way of life. They have graciously invited us to return next year when our studies of traditional ways will continue. Please visit their website where you can learn more about the extraordinary nature of their craft.