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Quillworking: traditional artform is being resurrected

Author: 
Pamela Sexsmith Green, Sage Writer, LLOYDMINSTER
Volume: 
2
Issue: 
8
Year: 
1998

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Porcupines leave their stories on the trees. They are our little four-legged brothers from the forest who have long been part of the sacred legends and lives of the people of the Plains and Woodland tribes.

Since prehistoric times, Aboriginal people have benefited from the porcupine, learning to weave intricate stories and designs, both personal and magic, with quills, sinew and natural dyes.

So it is that the quills of the porcupine have come to carry the same spiritual significance as the porcupine himself, protective shamanistic qualities that ward off harm, similar to the magical power of a tortoise shell.

An ancient art form that pre-dates European contact, quillworking is alive and well today in the hands of a few dedicated and patient practitioners. A gift from the Creator that echoes the soft colors of a Prairie sunset, waving fields of sage and sweetgrass, ripe groves of saskatoon, blueberries and juniper - and the feisty spirit of a little critter who carries his own medicine wherever he goes.

The modern rebirth of quillworking is part and parcel of a new North American trend. A vigorous and disciplined return to that most authentic of traditional paths, the recreation and preservation of real pre-contact culture and regalia.

"Why use smoked moose hide instead of cloth, deer hoof rattles instead of bells, and quillwork instead of beadwork, when cheap modern substitutes are readily available," asked traditional dancer, artist and regalia maker, Norman Moyah.

"Because it's totally and completely ours, the genuine article. And like Clovis and Folsom fluting on stone points, it is found nowhere else in the world. If you are pursuing authentic traditional garb, quillwork is the way to go, it's the real thing," he said.

The ancient art of quillworking began to lose ground in the 18th century with the arrival of glass beads, a highly prized trade item from Europe. The ease and availability of opaque pony beads and smaller multi-colored seed beads, led to the eventual demise of quillwork as a popular decorative medium, just as the introduction of cloth and woolen goods had replaced brain-tanned leather garments.

Beadwork became a prestigious and almost universal decoration of choice among Aboriginal people. Porcupine quillwork was driven so far underground, that almost all that remained were ghost forms of an ancient art, hiding inside beadworking patterns that imitated the layered rows of quillworking. It is a style that is commonly found on the heavy ornamental beadwork that decorates women's traditional regalia in today's modern powwow.

"With all due respect to the great skill and deft handling of beadworking materials by Native artisans, and to five generations of beadworkers among the women in my family, I have personally never felt any spiritual connection with a bead," said Moyah.

"What we seem to be forgetting is our spiritual connections with the animals, their shamanistic power, place in myth and storytelling and everyday life round the campfires. A tasty delicacy for the ancestors during the long cold winter moons, each mature porcupine would yield between 30,000 to 40,000 quills, more than enough to keep even the most determined quillworker busy. In the past, tradition dictated that we use all of the animal and plants we gathered, even trees were honored. We all have to face up to it sometime, you just can't eat beads."

Aspiring quillworkers can gather all the quills they need from porcupine roadkills, a tragic part of modern reality for this slow moving rodent. In an ironic twist, the harvesting of this roadside carnage actually helps to meet conservation needs, while honoring the spirit of the dead animal.

"Better to harvest a dead porcupine on the side of the road, than bash a live one over the head in the forest," said Moyah.

The quills of the animal are easily removed by following the direction of the hair and pulling them out carefully by hand.

Preparation of the quills is very tie consuming, from the gathering, washing and sorting to the preparation of natural dyes and pigments.

The use of natural dyes in traditional quillwork only adds to the power of Native medicine; berries, roots, grass, flowers, leaves, bark and minerals.

"All of my dyes are natural and it's a process of continual discovery and experimentation to rediscover the ways of the ancestors. Saskatoon berries are my favorite for making reddish violet. Thorny Buffalo berries make a vibrant red, while sage, sweetgrass and copper pigments create varying shades of green," said the artist.

After coming out of the dye vat, each quill can be flattened and moistened before the final weaving, plaiting, wrapping, folding and attaching with bison sinew or thread, can begin.

"Quillwork was traditionally attached to brain tanned leather from moose, deer and elk, and is definitely the way to go, as commercially processed hides tend to stretch," said Moyah.

"The oldest quillworkers tool kit found by Plains archeologists dates back to the 6th century AD, something which suggests to me that Aboriginal people have been refining their techniques for many thousands of years. The elaborate and ornate decorations created for ceremonial regalia, everyday household items and sacred artifacts such as pipestems, rattles, whistles and medicine bags, showed a high level of sophistication and mastery of the materials," he said.

Quillwork designs that reflected the geometric shapes of mountain and prairie landscapes and the intricate floral patterns of the Woodlands, were once very hot commodities on a vast trade network that stretched across the face of the continent in Pre-Columbian America.

Nowadays, most of the trade in finished quillwork pieces, porcupine lore and secrets of the craft is done on the World Wide Web among those with a serious bent for creating and wearing the real thing.

"Once we were quillworkers, and the trick is to find that connection, find our way back. I would like encouage more Aboriginal people to take up quillworking, search out books, study techniques, and view museum collections," Moyah said. "The more I work with porcupine quills, the more I grow to respect this shy, nocturnal animal who carries his own medicine on his back."

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