Some Uses of Birch Bark by Our Eastern Indians

American Section

By: F.G. Speck

Originally Published in 1910

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The primitive Algonkian tribes of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada have only recently come in for a share of the attention of field ethnologists. While it is true in this region that outward modifications have resulted from foreign contact, nevertheless the internal aspect of life among many of these Indians has remained practically unchanged. Through several seasons of field-work in the past three years my own efforts have been to institute systematic research among the half dozen or more tribes comprising this group.

Fig. 20- Penobscot Birch Bark Pack Basket
Image Number: 14316

We have already visited the Montagnais of southern Labrador, the Abenakis of the lower St. Lawrence, the Passamaquoddies of Maine and the Micmacs of New Brunswick, and special attention has thus far been given to the Penobscots of Maine and the Malisits of New Brunswick.

It has been my good fortune during the last three years to spend part of each spring and summer among the various bribes mentioned, and, with the other objects of interest which I collected during this time, there are some which appear to me to have special interest in relation to the arts of life, and which are moreover typical of the tribes which dwell in the northern woods where hunting and fishing provide the mainstays of life. Owing to their roving habits, the prime requisite in the articles manufactured by the northeastern Algonkian tribes in former times was lightness and indestructibility. Elaborate and cumbersome articles were avoided, and pottery, if used at all in the ordinary pursuit of life, was certainly not common. The best native ingenuity was displayed in constructing utensils that could be conveniently transported or those that could be used temporarily and replaced in a short time when needed.

The actual means of transportation also became highly specialized through the exigencies of travel. It is largely this which gives the appearance of primitiveness to the Penobscots and their neighbors. We find, for instance, a large proportion of objects made of the bark of the canoe birch, which has a wide distribution in the northern latitudes. All sorts of indispensable articles such as house coverings, canoes, cooking vessels, dishes, baskets and receptacles in general, as well as a multitude of other smaller things, were constructed of this invaluable material.

The recently acquired specimens show this trait quite clearly. A typical Penobscot canoe made of cedar wood, arbor vitae, and birch bark is shown in Fig. 19. This canoe belonged to Big Thunder, the late chief of the Penobscots, who is seen seated in the bow. The photograph was taken about nine years ago when Big Thunder, then about ninety years old, attempted to travel in a birch bark canoe from Old-town, Maine, to Washington with one companion to visit the President, an attempt that failed owing to the sudden illness of the chief.

Next to the canoe, perhaps the most significant article in connection with transportation is the birch bark pack basket, of which an excellent specimen may be seen in the collection now in the Museum (Fig. 20). In this tough and pliable receptacle, prized by the Penobscots, they store and transport the necessities of camp life. By means of a cedar bark strap passing across the chest, the well-packed basket, supported on the back, may be borne with comfort.

Fig.19- A Typical Penobscot Birch Canoe.

Interesting on account of their simplicity and the unusual ingeniousness of the idea are the birch bark cooking vessels. In former times these were used so extensively that tradition, among the Penobscots at least, is silent in reference to any other aboriginal boiler. No seams are found in the bottom of the vessel, which consists of a sheet of bark folded and fastened at the ends with ash splints or spruce root. On one occasion last winter I challenged an old man on his ability to boil water in a bark vessel. He constructed one in less than five minutes and within half an hour had brought cold water to the boiling point without damage to the vessel, although it rested directly on the glowing embers. He was then quite prepared to boil a mess of beans in his improvised pot.

An object of necessity to every Indian hunter among the northern tribes is his moose call, consisting simply of a sheet of birch bark rolled to form a cone and fastened. This simple affair in the hands of an expert is capable of imitating the call of the cow moose so unerringly as to lure the bull within the range of the hunter’s gun. A number of the calls made by well-known Indian guides and hunters have been recorded on the phonograph and are now in the Museum.

The decorative designs of the northeastern Indians may be studied from the decoration of articles in common use. These designs are often very complex. There is, however, to be found a simple motive which embraces all the curvilinear patterns. from the simplest to the most elaborate. This is the double curve motive which in its simplest aspect is shown in Fig. 21. With added interior modifications in the center and at the sides this becomes more complex until in some decorated surfaces the simple unit is quite obscured. Although the variations are entirely due to the fancy of the Indian artist who builds up her design from a simple double curve foundation, the decorative art of the Penobscots has its symbolical side as well. I hope that after further study I shall be able to give an ample interpretation to this symbolism, which at first seemed obscure.

4 figures showing individual Penobscot symbol designs, two of which show the double curve motif.

Fig. 21, Fig. 22, Fig. 23, Fig. 24

Cite This Article

Speck, F.G.. "Some Uses of Birch Bark by Our Eastern Indians." The Museum Journal I, no. 2 (September, 1910): 33-36. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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