M973.85.6A | Container with lid

Container with lid
Anonyme - Anonymous
Eastern Woodlands
Aboriginal: Mi'kmaq
1900-1925, 20th century
Birchbark, porcupine quills, spruce root, wood, brass tacks, sweetgrass, aniline dyes
13.3 x 14.9 x 22.5 cm
Gift of Mr. Edwin Holgate
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Box (44)
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Quillwork on birchbark is an art form that was pioneered by the Mi'kmaq, and their traditional geometric designs are unique. By the mid-18th century, quillwork had developed into a highly valued commodity aimed primarily at the European souvenir market. Porcupine quills, which are naturally white with black tips, were dyed with homemade or commercial colours. The ends of the quills were then inserted into holes in birchbark, which the artists sewed into forms that would appeal to European buyers.

Keys to History

Trade between French colonists and the Mi'kmaq, and in particular the sale by the Mi'kmaq of objects decorated with porcupine quills, increased towards the end of the 17th century. These objects were shipped to France, where they were avidly sought as curiosities. In fact, this type of birchbark box seems to have been made specifically for the European market.

The tips of porcupine quills are inserted into holes in the birchbark, which the artists sewed into different shapes. Geometric motifs such as the ones seen here were frequently used. The meaning of the chevron motif on the sides of the boxes is not known, but it may represent a spruce tree, the symbol of old age and great strength.

  • What

    These are nesting boxes, each of which fits inside the next largest one. They are decorated with porcupine quills coloured with synthetic aniline dyes (available after 1860), spruce root and sweetgrass-all fashioned into geometric patterns and the eight-sided star, the Mi'kmaq symbol of the sun.

  • Where

    This set of boxes comes from Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.

  • When

    These boxes were made at the beginning of the 20th century.

  • Who

    The name of the artist who made these boxes is not known, although it was probably a woman. We do know, however, that the set was given to the McCord Museum by the Canadian painter Edwin Headley Holgate (1892-1977), who had a great interest in the First Nations of Canada. Holgate was a member of the Group of Seven.