Native American


Artist: Irene Desmoulin
Culture/People: Odawa
Place: Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada
Media: Birchbark, porcupine quills, sweetgrass, and commercial dye
Dims: 7.25 x 9 x 7 in. (18.4 x 22.8 x 17.7 cm).
Date: 2000
RTC No: NA0216
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011

We are quick to get away from the winter winds and into the warmth of our homes. We might start a fire and brew some tea to encourage some heat. When the cold seems to settle in deep, and the warmth only kisses our cheeks; we pull out a timeless tradition. The oven is set, and ingredients are gathered. As the recipe is formed, the countertop gets dusted with flour, so the dough can be rolled out thin. The cookie cutters are pressed gently into the dough, and the excess is pulled back to reveal a familiar shape. As the cookies are baking to get crisp and sturdy; the table is set with an assortment of candies, buttercream frosting, and colorful sprinkles. Once the cookies are cooled and placed on the table, family and friends gather around. It’s a kind of warmth that can only seep in when loving hands press together the walls of the gingerbread house. The frame is frosted to look like snow, and the candies are placed to create a colorful design. Once the wintery cottage is completed one can’t help but feel proud. Over the centuries, the gingerbread house has been reimagined and embraced by all sorts of families, friends, and different cultures. Irene Desmoulin (Odawa) puts a lovely twist on the Germanic-inspired gingerbread house with this birchbark box cottage that encourages us to reminisce about this holiday tradition.

This Odawa birchbark cottage originates from Manitoulin Island amongst Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada. The birchbark box was made in the early 2000s, although the style dates back to the 1890s. Her birchbark box resembles the Germanic gingerbread style with the white sweetgrass trim and the tripartite facade composition: two windows and a door. The hinged roof opens to store an assortment of knickknacks. On all viewable surfaces of the cottage, there is quillwork of pink and purple flowers. This floral design came about through a long history between Europeans and the Great Lakes people. It was spread throughout the fur trade and became an impressionable part of the visual environment of local Indigenous communities.

Quillwork is a process that takes a steady guiding hand. Irene Desmoulin displays a refined example in this Odawa Birchbark cottage. A delicate flow of flowers spreads across the cottage showing the attention to detail needed for the skill. Individuals residing in the Great Lakes region produced quillwork long before contact with Europeans in 1615.

During January and February, when the natural color is most prominent, the quills’ are collected from porcupines. Birch bark is cut from the trees at the beginning of summer. During this time a plethora of sap is produced ensuring the tree will not be harmed after removing the first layer. Sweetgrass is harvested during June and July to be rinsed in hot water and hung to dry. These are the key components of creating a quillwork birchbark box.

To begin the process of making a birch bark box, the outer layer of the bark is gently scraped to remove any loose material. The bark is then sanded to a smooth surface. To make the birch bark pliable, it is dampened with a wet cloth and held over a fire. The bark then is cut according to the pattern. An awl is used to punch holes for the pieces to be sewn together and wooden pegs are used to hold the shape of the box while it dries. Then comes the meticulous process of quillwork. First, a design is lightly sketched onto the box. Then an awl is used to punch holes for the quills to go through. The quills can be synthetically dyed or they can be naturally dyed using materials such as roots, berries, and herbs to get enriching colors as shown in Irene Desmoulin’s cottage. The artist readies the quill by softening them either by placing it in their mouth or soaking the quills in warm water. Once the quills are flexible, they are inserted into the predetermined holes and pulled through with tweezers. Once the design is completed, the quills are twisted in the back and covered by another piece of birchbark.

It is rare to see artwork similar to Irene Desmoulin’s cottage. Amid the Odawa of Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada birchbark craft is a cherished artistry that has lasted for centuries. There are many qualities to admire in the process of the making of the birchbark box such as the harvesting of the materials in the North East. This is where the birch tree grows and porcupines thrive. Irene Desmoluin displays a beautiful example of traditions that influence one another.

—Tess Smith, November 2021

Tess Smith interned with the Coe from late September to early November 2021. She came to visit her aunt in Santa Fe from Dade City, FL. She has completed one year at Ringling College of Art and Design as an illustration major. She is currently working towards transferring to the University of South Florida for a BA in Art History.

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