Accession number: 2000.32
Date: 1850 – 2000
Narrative: The Mi’kmaq are a First Nations group that historically lived in the Maritime provinces and the Gaspe peninsula in Quebec. They are an Algonquin speaking culture related to the Wabenaki cluster including the Abenaki, Penebscot, Passamquoddy, and Maliseet. Historically, the Mi’kmaq lived in extended family groups that moved seasonally following the food supply.
The Mi’kmaq are well known for their quillwork birchbark; documentation suggests they are the earliest makers of quilled bark. Some documentary references suggest the craft was practised in 1650 although the earliest known examples date to 1750-60 from the Fortress of Louisbourg. It is unlikely that quillwork was made prior to European contact and it probably was developed for sale or trade. By the early nineteenth century, quillwork was being exported to the United States, Great Britain, and the West Indies; by 1850, quillwork pieces were displayed at international and provincial exhibitions. The craft, however, is very time-consuming and strenuous on the eyes so by the 1900s it was no longer a viable source of income; by 1950, there were few individuals who remembered the techniques.
The most common item made for trade was the quillwork box; boxes could be fashioned in ovals, circles, squares, rectangles, or trunks. Quilled chairs are far less common although examples do exist.
The quilled areas were bordered with spruce undyed quills, or sweetgrass. Designs were scratched into the bark with an awl and insertion holes were made in the bark. Each quill end was inserted into a different hole in the bark which was warm and wet when worked; the wet bark contracted around the quills holding them in places. Quills would be inserted side by side to create a mosaic effect; geometric designs were common motifs. The designs often were specific to different families although most of the meanings are no longer known. Reoccurring patterns include a fan-shape which represents the Northern Lights, an eight-pointed star which represents an eight-legged starfish, and a chevron. The quills used come from the porcupine, Erithizon dorsatum, and are creamy-white with small black tips. A variety of natural, organic materials were used for dye including Sweet Gale seeds, Gold-thread roots, Red Bedstraw, Bloodroot, Black Spruce bark, and Alder bark. After 1850, commercial, organic dyes were available such as Indigo, Logwood, and Redwood. These dyes produced colours in tones of brown, yellow, and blue. Following 1863, aniline dyes in shades of magenta, orange, crimson, and pink were available.
A four-legged chair. The seat and back are decorated with a starburst pattern in quillwork. The back two legs are straight while the front two are bobbin turned.