(last updated 04/04/2000)
The art of decorating boxes and other garments with porcupine quillsis unique to North America. Indians living in the Great Lakes area weredoing quill work long before the first European contact in 1615. With theencouragement of French traders, a number of Great Lakes Indians -- principallyOttawa and Chippewa -- began to place quill decorations on birch bark boxes.Today over 200 years later, quill work on birch bark boxes is well knownand highly prized Native American art.
Making quill boxes is a time consuming and meticulous process. Quillsare collected in January and February when their natural color is the strongestand they are not oily. Birch bark is cut from trees in May and June, whensap is abundant and removal of the first layer of bark will not harm thetree. Sweet grass is pulled in June and July before insects have devouredthe long broad leaves. It is rinsed in hot water and hung to dry.
One porcupine can provide thirty to forty thousand quills, ranging inlength up to five inches. Quills can be plucked from porcupines killed forfood or obtained from slow-moving live animals that are trapped by skillfullythrown blankets. Quills are washed and sorted according to length and thickness.
Quilling is not difficult, but demands care and patience. When softenedin the mouth or soaked in water, quills become very pliable and can be flattened,bent, and twisted. A pliable quill is inserted into a hole pierced alonga predetermined design line. A second hole is pierced within the designand the other end of the quill is inserted and pulled tight with tweezers.The quill is held snugly because the bark tends to expand slightly afterthe quill is inserted, shrinking the size of the hole. This process is repeateduntil the design is complete.
Yvonne Walker Keshick is a contemporary master of this centuries oldNorth American Indian craft. Her quill work is distinguished by its designs,the uniform size of the quills, the accuracy of the fit of the box, uniformsewing, and quality bark with no warping or scars. Yvonne continues herwork in earnest in upper Michigan, where she has been making quill boxesfor over 20 years.