Birch-bark biting is the art of dentally perforating designs on intricately folded sheets of paper-thin bark. Traditionally, the technique is known to have been practised by Ojibwe (or Chippewa), Cree and other Algonquian peoples who used birchbark extensively in fabricating domestic containers, architectural coverings, canoes and pictographic scrolls. Indigenous artists have kept the practice alive in spite of colonial efforts to culturally assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society. (See also History of Indigenous Art in Canada and Contemporary Indigenous Art in Canada.)
What Is Birch-Bark Biting?
To create this art, artists fold thin pieces of birch bark several times and then use their teeth to make patterns or create an image. Artists rotate the piece in their mouth to help achieve the desired design.
Historically, bark biting was a casual art among Indigenous women. Each artist had their own techniques and preferred trees. It was a means of experimenting with designs that might later be translated into porcupine quill or bead appliqué on bark containers or hide clothing. (See also Quillwork.) It was a form of recreation or friendly competition.
Did You Know?
azinibaganjigan is the Ojibwe word for birch-bark biting. (See also Anishinaabemowin: Ojibwe Language.)
Birch-Bark Biting Artists
Cree artist Angelique Merasty Levac (1924-96) of Amisk (Beaver) Lake, Saskatchewan, is one of the most well-known birch-bark biting artists. With her technique and style, Merasty Levac greatly amplified the traditional range of geometric designs in bark biting. Her art included rich curvilinear floral, insect, animal and human figures.
Inspired by Merasty Levac, Pat Bruderer (Half Moon Woman) of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation was self-taught in the art form. In her first NFT collection, pieces from her Iskotew - Burnt Originals collection were set fire to along with Indigenous medicines of cedar and sweetgrass. Bruderer’s work is found in museums and galleries around the world.
Innu artist Thérese Thelesh Begin has been practicing birch-bark biting since she was a child. She now passes on her knowledge to new generations of Indigenous artists. Begin, whose family has been practicing the artform for generations, sees bark biting as a form of spirituality.
Through the work of various Indigenous artists, birch-bark biting has achieved the status and market of a fine art. Their work has also helped to preserve and promote their respective cultures.