Crafting with Birchbark
Items made from Birchbark
Native Americans who live in the northern regions of North America use the bark of the ‘paper’ Birch tree to make many useful and decorative items. They use large pieces of Birchbark to cover their dwellings. Entire canoes with wood frames are made with strips of this bark. Birchbark rolled into a triangular tube serves as a Moose call for hunters.
Crafters create a variety of containers to hold and carry food. Rogans are a type of basket that often has a trapezoidal shape with a narrower top. Berry Baskets come with handles to carry them. Shallow trays or round containers with the inside treated with pitch can be used to cook food or carry liquids. Fish Creels with small openings in the lid hold the fisherman’s catch of the day.
In more recent times, crafters started using Birchbark to make picture frames, decorative mats, decorated boxes with lids, ornaments and jewelry.
People gathered the bark in the winter and spring. After they fell the tree, the bark is painstakingly peeled from the trunk. They may discard the outer white bark depending on what products the crafter intends to make. The inner bark has several layers that crafters peel to obtain the correct thickness for their projects.
Crafters decorate their Birchbark items in a variety of ways. They create two-toned decorations by etching designs on the interior bark. They either scrape away the background around a shape to make a dark design with a lighter background, or etch the shape itself on the bark to create a light design on a dark background.
Sometimes crafters cut out shapes from the Birchbark and sew them on to a container with spruce root for a contrasting three dimensional appliqué design. Spruce root is also used to stitch designs or outlines on Birchbark. Crafters use spruce root to fasten the pieces together and sew up seams. For a more decorative look, they dye the spruce root to create colorful designs and accents.
Natives of the Northeast use the quills of the Porcupine to create embroidered floral, animal and geometric designs on Birchbark. Both natural and dyed quills are used to create beautiful decorations. They also use Moose Hair to create ‘tufted’ floral designs.
Birchbark Artists Today
Birchbark continues to be a valuable resource for Native American communities in northern regions. Tomah Joseph was a Passamaquoddy artist from Maine who created Birchbark canoes and other items that are highly collectible and found in museum collections. Paul St. John is a Mohawk tribal member living in Maine who creates Birchbark boxes with Porcupine Quill decorations.