'There are Nanaboozho stories
telling why birch bark is white,
how the markings came about,
and why there are momma
and baby thunderbirds in the bark.
The stories can only be told
during winter months when Aki
is covered with a blanket
of snow and spirits are sleeping.
Right now it is summer and we
must be preparing for the long,
bitter cold northern winter ahead,
hunting, drying buffalo meat,
picking berries, grinding them into
pemmican, storing in birch bark
containers. When the first
flakes appear, come to my lodge
and I will tell you stories.'
(From Denise Lajimodiere’s book of poems, Dragonfly Dance)
Birchbark (wiigwass), simple yet profound. Who could dream so much could be made from such simple material? As I talk with other Ojibwe I learn more fantastic and unexpected uses for this most versatile of gifts from the forest. The tree can even be tapped like a maple tree, its sap drunk for medicinal purposes or boiled down into syrup.
Like all things in Ojibwe life, however, the discussion of wiigwaas must begin with story. This story comes to us from Greg (Biskakone or Sparks of Fire) Johnson, Ojibwe Language and Cultural Coordinator for the Lac du Flambeau tribe in Wisconsin. In true traditional form, Biskakone, begins the story by describing a young man whose name can only be mentioned during the winter months. This young man is featured in many traditional Ojibwe teaching stories, half man, half spirit. Although motivated by altruism, he is often defeated by his greed.
One day this young man climbed to the top of a huge white pine tree while looking for food. There he found an enormous bird’s nest containing two huge eggs. “What a meal these would make!” he thought. But how to get the eggs to the ground? Eventually, he rolled one of the eggs out of the nest slowly down the tree, branch to branch; unfortunately the egg broke when it hit the ground. Lightning immediately began to strike all around him and a forceful wind began knocking trees over. He saw that the lightning bolts and wind were coming from a giant Thunderbird who had crept up behind him, and realized he had broken the creature’s egg. Frightened, he tried to flee, first hiding inside a dead oak log. The Thunderbirds threw their bolts at the log and easily broke it apart. At last, he found a dead white tree that had rotted away but still had its bark. He hid inside and pulled the pliable material around him. The Thunderbirds scratched mightily at the bark, leaving black streaks on the surface, and they threw lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the bark, but could not penetrate it. At last, they grew tired of chasing the young man and returned to their nest and remaining egg.
The young man realized this bark was very strong, so he took some home and began making things from the wondrous material.
This story, according to Biskakone, explains how birchbark came to have its distinctive black marks and explains the unusual Thunderbird-like designs that often appear in the bark.
Most birchbark is harvested in the spring and summer, when the temperature rises above freezing, allowing the bark to be easily snapped from the tree after being cut. Biskakone, however, also likes to harvest winter bark early in the spring when the temperature hovers just above freezing. This inside of winter bark is a velvety brown and is especially beautiful when designs are etched into it. It is much more difficult to harvest in the winter, since the bark must be “muscled” off, according to Biskakone, in order to keep the sheet from tearing. He makes exquisite baskets from this winter bark. In his role as tribal cultural director, he teaches tribal members how to use the bark and even demonstrates how to boil water in a watertight birch bark container.
He plans to make a canoe with students this summer. “Teaching our kids how to do these traditional activities is a great investment in our future,” he says. “It will help them know where they came from.”
Less prosaic and created for the ethereal qualities of wiigwaas alone is mazinibakanige, or birchbark biting. In this painstaking process, the bark is separated into thin layers, akin to rice paper. The paper is then folded several times. Using one’s eye teeth, designs can be bitten into the paper that are revealed after the paper is gently pulled open.
Denise Lajimodiere, Turtle Mountain Ojibwe, is a master in mazinibakanige. A professor at North Dakota State University and artist and poet, she became obsessed with biting after seeing examples of the pre-contact art form in museums. The original purpose of mazinibakanige for Ojibwe ancestors is not completely known.
Lajimodiere opines the bitings may have been used as patterns for quill- or beadwork, or they may simply have been created for their delicate beauty alone.
She usually closes her eyes when biting bark. “I see the designs in the darkness with my teeth,” she said. She bites the bark quickly, the pleasant crunching sound resembling that of a chipmunk biting through wood. Her designs depict dragon flies, turtles and elaborate floral patterns.
Lajimodiere was recently selected for a six-month Minnesota Historical Society Native Artist in Residence in order to explore and share her biting skills. According to Lajimodiere, who hopes to spur a resurgence of the art, there is a healing quality in biting birchbark. Like poets before her such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Frost, Lajimodiere has been inspired to write poems about birch trees and bark. Her work, however, celebrates the unique Ojibwe connection with this greatest of gifts from the forest.
Wiigwaas can be used for:
- housing, as in temporary birch bark lodges usually used when hunting;
- dishware and storage containers for maple sugar and other food;
- waterproof cookware (if folded properly) that can withstand heat if filled with liquid;
- transportation (canoes);
- spirituality, as scrolls upon which our medicine people inscribed a pictograph-like language detailing our ceremonies; small containers for religious offerings;
- medicine, as in oil and the fungi that grow on the bark;
- baskets for winnowing manoomin (wild rice); mazinibakanige (birchbark biting), in which designs are bitten into paper-thin layers of bark;
- jewelry and decorations… and certainly much more than I’ve listed here.