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How Indigenous artists are reinvigorating the art of birch bark biting

Emily Reily

Aug 30, 2021

The art takes skill, practice and experience, but also patience.

In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, just after the snow melts but before flowers start to bud, Pat Bruderer, 67, searches for paper birch trees. When she finds bark with just the right color on the inside (dusky pink), the right feel (“very soft ... almost like silk”) and the right age (older bark won’t work), she thanks the tree for what it’s about to give her. She cuts the bark with a knife and later will peel it and bite it into unique designs.

“I offer tobacco out of respect and say a prayer before I take the bark from the tree. There’s a cracking sound you’ll hear when the bark releases. And then I peel the many layers — layers and layers,” says Bruderer, a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation who is also known as Halfmoon Woman. She is one of a small number of birch bark biters, practitioners of an art form that has been part of life among many Indigenous groups in the United States and Canada for centuries. The artists use their teeth to create delicate, sometimes complex designs from single layers of bark. The practice has seen a resurgence in recent years as artists seek to keep the tradition alive for future generations — a small but powerful act of resistance against cultural annihilation.

Each artist has their own method of working with birch bark. They find their preferred trees at various times of the year, depending on the need. Spring bark is thinner and easier to peel, while winter bark is thicker.

A white birch tree, also known as the paper birch. (Hilary McDonald)

Biters told me they look for silvery, bright white birches with dusky pink or tan-colored inner bark that’s pliable and free of knots. After peeling anywhere from 10 to 20 layers of bark, they fold a single sheet into a square, rectangle or triangle.

To create an image — a dragonfly, a flower, a hummingbird — artists use their eyeteeth (the sharp teeth also known as canines) to pierce the delicate, onion-thin skin just enough to make indentations. They move the piece around in their mouth, creating symmetrical shapes. They can’t see the results of their work until they unfold the bark and hold it to the light.

Ideas for designs come to Bruderer only after she touches the bark. “I hold it. I visualize in my mind what I hope to bite. And then I begin to draw the image,” she says.

“I just seem to be able to see the pattern when I close my eyes,” says biter Denise Lajimodiere, 70, of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, N.D.

Basketmaker Kelly Church, 54, with the Gun Lake Tribe in Hopkins, Mich., says birch bark biting is like “connecting your mind to your teeth. ... I’m thinking of a butterfly, and I’m turning the bark in my mouth in the shape of a butterfly wing. And then I open it up, and then there’ll be butterfly wings.”

The art takes skill, practice and experience, but also patience. “There are periods of calm and frustration when you’re trying to create. As bossy humans that we are, sometimes we force the issue. And that’s when we find that our bark won’t peel or it rips,” says Abenaki biter Liz Charlebois, 46, of Brattleboro, Vt.

Known as mazinibaganjigan, pictures bitten on bark, or birch bark transparencies, birch bark biting has existed since “precontact days,” before White people landed in North America. White settlers took note of the craft: In 1687, a Jesuit missionary in Quebec sent “pieces of bark, on which figures have been marked by teeth,” in a box along with other “curiosities” bound for France. In 1855, when German writer Johann Georg Kohl visited an Ojibwe village in what is now Garden Village, Ontario, he described “pretty figures of every description which they contrive to bite on the bark with their teeth.” Birch bark biter Angélique Marte gave Kohl a “specimen of her tooth carving” — a figure of a girl, a flower bouquet and a tomahawk. Kohl called it “beaux arts.” His contemporary, geographer and ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, called it “dental pictography.”

During precontact days, birch bark biting was practiced mainly by women in tribes “wherever the birch tree grows,” Church says. That area is vast; it includes British Columbia, northwest Alaska, Washington state, the northern Great Plains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes and New England. Tribes that have practiced the art form include some Algonquin peoples of the Great Lakes parts of Canada and the United States, Ojibwe, Pottawatomi, Abenaki, Odawa, Chippewa and some groups of Cree.

Women made bitings as a lunchtime diversion while out picking berries, “to see who could make the best design, the most intricate design,” Charlebois says. People made boats and baskets and cooked with birch bark. Babies were birthed onto the bark, Bruderer says. Upon death, members of some tribes were wrapped in birch bark shrouds.

The hands of contemporary dancer Marcus Merasty cradle a projection of “Bee Resilient,” a scroll biting from Pat Bruderer’s permanent collection. (John Michael Spencer)

Bitings were used to make maps, record meetings, tell stories and, more recently, generate income from tourists. Patterns were used for clothing designs, beadwork and quill work. “I love working with birch bark, the feel, the sound,” says Lajimodiere. “It has a powder to it that has no taste. We would put our [dried] food in the basket, and that powder was a preservative. It gave us our wigwams, our homes, our canoes, our baskets.”

Biters often learn the craft from tribal elders and relatives eager to pass on the tradition. Angelique Merasty, of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Canada, learned from her mother, Susan Ballantyne, and other elders. Today Merasty is widely known as one of the master birch bark biters, and her work has appeared in books and museums. At her death at age 72 in 1996, she was also considered one of the last.

“Round Dance,” from Pat Bruderer’s permanent collection. This biting features 16 figures connected in healing and community. (Hilary McDonald)

She employed a pointillist style, using her teeth to dot the bark with tiny circles or dashes that grew into imaginative lines and curves. She often designed soaring birds, playful shapes and long-legged insects with segmented, symmetrical bodies. In one example, whimsical butterflies dance in a circle adorned with swirls, birch leaves and ovals. In another sample, from the British Museum, four plump insects — two butterflies and two bees — huddle in a circle, deep in conversation.

Though Merasty brought the art worldwide recognition, birch bark biting lay on the verge of extinction for centuries, with just a handful of documented practitioners. “Native Americans, Indigenous people, are victims of wide-scale genocide, culturally,” says Charlebois. “Residential schools — kids were taken from their families and put in these schools. Their traditional ways were erased, or the children didn’t come home. We’re talking about an entire generation of folks who didn’t have access to their elders, or to their traditional languages, or their traditional art forms. That is so debilitating to Indigenous cultures.”

Birch bark biters believe it’s their responsibility to pass their knowledge on to younger generations. Artists are working on educational outreach through Zoom sessions, presentations and workshops, where children are surprised at what they can make. Bruderer says she teaches about 4,000 children a year: “I never want it to be a lost art.”

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