When the first European explorers arrived in the North American North East - birch bark was the predominate material used by the Wabanki. From wigmwams to canoes to moose calls to dolls to quivers to torches to drums to cradles to maple sugar sap kettles - the uses were many and birch bark items were pervasive, supplying items essential to daily living.
PHOTO DESCRIPTIONS: please click individual photo to see entire picture
*2 etched/scraped birchbark pieces by Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy - from Museum Exhibit* *Penobscot birch bark wigwams - 1800 drawing* *Golden Eagle/land locked salmon - birch bark mukuk by Otter, Passamaquoddy - Available on this website*
A 1957 pamphlet "Uses of Birch-Bark In the Northeast" lists over 100 items that the Wabanakis made from birchbark. Birch bark features in many of their myths and legends. Prior to European contact birch bark was relied on by the Wabanaki to fabricate items essential to their lives. In the 1700's some birch bark workers sold their wares to Europeans who favored the more decorative of these items. Birch bark boxes decorated with porcupine quill work or scraped/etched designs - removing the thin first layer of bark to expose the lighter bark below and making a design. Earlier scraped bark containers were said to have designs that could be read as treaty agreements or referred to physical areas or historical occurrences.
When Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy (1837-1914) began making scraped/etched birch bark items he incorporated some of the old designs into works that included vegetation, animals, humans, mythical beings and more - wigwams, fire pits, canoes etc. Late in the 1800's through the 1950's some birch bark items were made more for tourists. Pipe holders, picture frames, small canoes, small tipis of birchbark etc. These items were inexpensive at the time and have now become highly collectable.
Current birch bark workers doing scrape/etch work include Passamaquoddy David Moses Bridges, who has constructed several full size bark canoes for museums and private collectors and who also does exquisite smaller works interpreting myths and legendary figures very differently than Tomah Joseph. Penobscot Barry Dana makes beautiful birch bark boxes and items featuring more realistic scenes. Passamaquoddy basketmakers Jeremy Frey and Eric "Otter" Bacon have used etched/scraped birch bark medallions on the lids of some of their baskets. Eric "Otter" Bacon's traditional etch/scraped birch bark mukuk featuring a not so traditional design "Golden Eagle/Landlocked Salmon won 2nd place at the 2011 Heard Museum invitational open show.
Paul St John, an enrolled member of the Mohawk tribe, but whose mother is Passamaquoddy/MicMac/Maliseet, does traditional quill work on birchbark and sweetgrass baskets and has just finished a scraped/etched 17" birch bark canoe model (with kneeling corn husk doll paddling the canoe)
Bonnie Newsom, Penobscot has a new way of using birch bark for decorative purposes. She cuts small shapes from the bark, bark being light on one side, dark on the other - Bonnie lays the shapes on a contrasting piece of bark and covers them with resin. These then are put in a variety of settings to make wonderful earrings, bracelets and necklace pendents.
History on Birchbark: The art of Tomah Joseph, Passamaquoddy by Joan A Lester, 1993, The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University
The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine by Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, 1932, reprinted with color plates by The Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, ME 2003
Uses of Birch-Bark in the Northeast by Eva L Butler and Wendell S Hadlock, 1957, The Robert Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, Me