University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both


By: and Liliana Gurry

November 9, 2018

The intricate detailing on these birchbark trays was the first thing that caught my eye. It is difficult to fathom the amount of labor and intensive effort it takes to embroider such complex designs into a thin piece of wood. As seen in the images below, these three trays differ in shape, size, and content, but are similar in their construction.

The first birchbark tray, object number 92-12-11 is significantly smaller than the other two, has scalloped edges, and a unique flower embroidery. The plant life images are incredibly detailed and brightly colored.

The second tray, object number 92-12-10, is the largest of the three and has the same edge shape as the first tray. The difference, however, is in the details of the embroidery. The tray exhibits Native people dressed in Native clothing, partaking in everyday life activities. In the center of the tray is a large bird surrounded by a variety of plants.

The third tray is object number 92-12-9. This tray is an entirely different shape than the first two, with straight edge sides and a rectangular center. This tray, similar to the first, depicts both people and animals along with the plant life. The center features a spotted dog, and the people again are shown with pipes, in Native clothing, performing common activities.

When researching the origins of these embroidered trays, a history of community convergence was uncovered before my eyes. At first glance, the birch bark and moose hair embroidered trays look like fragile works of art full of symbolism and culture. On closer examination, however, the images and symbols in them reveal details about both Native and French culture. The similarities and contrasts in these distinctive trays illustrate a history of collaboration between the French and Indigenous people and traditions.

Looking at these objects individually and as a collective group, it is easy to assume a sense of symbolism in the intricate designs. The people, animals, and plants look as though they have a story behind them. The cards indicate that all three trays are from the Quebec region in Canada and made by Huron (also called Huron-Wendat) people. They are mostly constructed of birch bark and embroidered with dyed moose hair. The trays are strictly embroidered, never woven, using a variety of techniques.[1] The trays vary in size and shape but are fairly similar in design. One tray, shown in the first image, has only plant images, while the others have images displaying animals and Native people engaging in everyday life activities.

Embroidered birch bark trays like these are commonly seen as tourist items made by Native people of the Quebec region for tourism purposes, trading, and sale to collectors.[2] Examples can be found held by private collectors, ethnographic museums, art auction houses, and antiquities dealers.[3] These trays came into the Penn Museum collection as donations from Marshall J. Becker, a retired Penn State professor who was an aesthetic collector; he had the objects in his possession because he found them beautiful and interesting.

The earliest examples of birch trays of this nature were seen in the handiwork of French-Canadian Ursuline nuns during the early 1700s, when they utilized Native decorative materials (dyed porcupine quills and moose hair) as substitutes for silk embroidery threads, and created some birchbark boxes “in the Indian style” to make gifts for prominent leaders.[4] The floral images on objects made by nuns typically resembled the style of ecclesiastical embroidery. With this in mind, the first tray in my study—object number 92-12-11—might have been made by a French-Canadian artisan. Or was it a Native artisan, given the central motif of wild indigenous strawberries?

Liliana Gurry examines floral designs on birchbark tray 92-12-11. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.
Birchbark tray 92-12-10. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.
Birchbark tray 92-12-9. Photograph by the Penn Museum.
Birchbark tray 92-12-11. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

Ursuline nuns and other Catholic religious missionaries interacted regularly with Native people who resided in or near Catholic missions along the Saint Lawrence. At times, Native women worked side-by-side with French nuns in both a religious and artistic context.[5] The nuns taught the Natives to combine French embroidery techniques with Indigenous materials (moose hair and birchbark) to create an art form that could be sold for tourism purposes. Since objects made by Native artisans typically showed naturalistic flowers and historically accurate elements of Native lifeways and dress and activities, the second two trays—object number 92-12-10 and object number 92-12-9 —were clearly made by Huron-Wendat artisans. Yet, there is a collaboration between the Indigenous and the French in these trays. When the French dye colors and techniques are juxtaposed with the Native materials and images, the two cultures intertwine before a viewer’s eye.

Even when designs were French-inspired, Native artisans put themselves into the embroidery. The trays are filled with depictions of local plants, animals, and people typical of Native life in the region and time. The men and women are dressed in European cloth trade shirts, but they are wearing Native style leggings and moccasins, an obvious way to emphasize the differences between the cultures. At a closer look, one can see that the activities these people are engaging in are typical of Native culture, more so than French settler-colonial culture. The Native women are seen smoking pipes, just like the Native men.[6] There are no visible Catholic elements in the designs that show people, perhaps so that the trays could be recognized as Native products. The range in images and representations suggests that the artists were able to speak to a wide variety of customers and create options for each potential buyer.[7] A German tourist who visited Quebec in 1861, for example, observed that Native artists had “a very good eye for colour, and much richness of fancy” in their manner of depicting “strawberries, cherries, and other wild fruits of their woods.”[8]

Details on Huron-Wendat birchbark tray, showing Native people in clothing typical to the late 18th and early 19th century. Note the woman holding a basket and smoking a pipe. Photograph by Margaret Bruchac.

During the Victorian era, the village of Lorette was especially well-known for “the ingenuity with which Huron women produced Victorian-inspired objects, both common and whimsical.”[9] Linda Sioui, a member of the Huron-Wendat First Nation in Lorette, Quebec, explains that Native artisans embraced this art form, and developed increasingly elaborate designs.

“Made of birchbark intricately embroidered with moosehair, these trays as well as small cases for calling cards were highly prized gifts, and Huron Wendat women made large numbers of them in the quiet of their homes. Some of the most spectacular ones were decorated with flowers and various other motifs, while others depicted scenes of daily life in the community. Still others were magnificently embroidered with birds.”[10]

These embroidered birchbark trays are an interesting example of how cultures can interact, contradict, collaborate, and develop to create an expressive art form. Although the trays represent some elements of French influence and culture, and are sometimes categorized as merely “tourist art,” they also provided a unique opportunity for Native artisans to combine French techniques and Native materials to artistically represent themselves.

Footnotes:

[1] Frank G. Speck. “Huron Moose Hair Embroidery.” American Anthropologist New Series Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan. – March 1911): 1-14.

[2] Edwin Wade. The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution. New York, NY: Hudson Hills Press, 1986, 82.

[3] See, for example, the variety of moose hair embroidered birchbark objects for sale at Skinner’s Auction House.

[4] Ruth B. Phillips. “Nuns, Ladies, and the ‘Queen of the Huron’ – Appropriating the Savage in Nineteenth-Century Huron Tourist Art.” In Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner, eds. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1999, 34-35.

[5] Wade, The Arts of the North American Indian, 82.

[6] For more discussion of how Native women depicted themselves in a straightforward, rather than stereotypical, manner, see Anne de Stecher, Subjugation and Autonomy: Images of Aboriginal Women, Imagery by Aboriginal Women, A Comparative Study. Masters’ Thesis, Carleton University, 2006.

[7] For another example and detailed images of moose hair embroidery on an object made for sale to tourists, see Mollie Gleeson, “Moose Hair and Birch Bark,”  in The Artifact Lab: Conservation in Action, Penn Museum website, May 4, 2017.

[8] Johann Georg Kohl. Travels in Canada, and through the States of New York and Pennsylvania. Translated by Mrs. Percy Sinnett. London: George Manwaring, 1861, 155.

[9] Linda Sioui, 2007.  “The Huron-Wendat Craft Industry from the 19th Century to Today.” Musée McCord Museum website.

[10] Linda Sioui, 2007.  “The Huron-Wendat Craft Industry from the 19th Century to Today.” Musée McCord Museum website.

Sources Cited:

de Stecher, Anne. 2006. Subjugation and Autonomy: Images of Aboriginal Women, Imagery by Aboriginal Women, A Comparative Study. Masters’ Thesis, Carleton University.

Gleeson, Mollie. May 4, 2017.“Moose Hair and Birch Bark,”  in The Artifact Lab: Conservation in Action, Penn Museum website.

Kohl, Johann Georg. 1861. Travels in Canada, and through the States of New York and Pennsylvania. Translated by Mrs. Percy Sinnett. London: George Manwaring.

Phillips, Ruth B. 1999. “Nuns, Ladies, and the ‘Queen of the Huron’ – Appropriating the Savage in Nineteenth-Century Huron Tourist Art.” In Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner, eds., pp. 20-49. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Sioui, Linda. 2007. “The Huron-Wendat Craft Industry from the 19th Century to Today.” Musée McCord Museum website.

Speck, Frank G. 1911. “Huron Moose Hair Embroidery.” In American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan. – March 1911): 1-14.

Wade, Edwin. 1986. North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution. New York, NY: Hudson Hills Press.


This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles, edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “The Salmon Basket and Cannery Label.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”


 


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