Box made with birch bark and decorated with dyed porcupine quills. Box is round and features earth-tone colors.
Quill Box
Maker
Unknown artist from the Micmac tribe
Origin
Micmac
Date
Unknown, but at the DAM since 1936
Medium
Birch bark and quillwork

Quill Box

What is it?

Box; made with birch bark and porcupine quillwork.

Who made it?

This box was made by a citizen of the Micmac tribe. The Micmac community (also known as Mi’kmaq) is comprised of seven districts, ranging from the Northeastern US to Canada. Micmac is also translated as “my kin; my friends.” Due to their artists’ skilled quillwork, the Micmac have also been referred to as “porcupine people.” Date of creation is uncertain, but it has been in DAM’s collection since 1936.

What inspired it?

This box displays a variety of geometric patterning and earthy colors; the detail and precision are still evident. Micmac artists are particularly known for creating items with elaborate quillwork and using a variety of bark types, such as maple, cedar, and white birch. Quillwork is commonly found on boxes made with birch bark. While the use of the object isn’t specifically known, boxes like this are made for decorative purposes and tourism. Since incorporating quills is a long process and the resulting design can be fragile, items for everyday wear typically do not include quillwork.

What to Look For

Quillwork
Quillwork

Quillwork is typically done by the process of dyeing and softening porcupine quills, which are then woven into materials like leather and birch bark. Chippewa and Micmac artists are best known for keeping the technique of quillwork alive, as other groups have turned primarily to beadwork, due to the difficulty of working with the materials. When sewing with quills, each end of a softened quill is inserted into the perforated surface. As the quill dries, it stiffens and the material naturally holds it in place. Quills are either set parallel or crisscrossed to achieve different geometric shapes and patterns.

Birch Bark
Birch Bark

Micmac artists use birch bark to construct many things, including houses, canoes, baskets, serving dishes, fans, and other objects. Birch bark is ideal for quillwork due to the layered characteristic of the bark. The bark is peeled away from the tree and, depending on the age of the tree, heated until the wood becomes flexible and can be perforated by an awl.

Eight-point Star
Eight-point Star

One common design found on quill boxes is the eight-point star. Seven of the points represent the seven Micmac regions in New England, while the eighth point signifies Great Britain and the British Crown, which was added after treaties between the Micmac and British Crown were signed.