The most revered and useful wood of the Ojibwe
Paper Birch is one of the most sacred trees of the Ojibwe. The people regard the birch bark as a distinct contribution from the Creator. No birch is gathered by the Ojibwe without due offering of tobacco. Families make a pilgrimage to birch groves during the latter part of June and in July to gather their supply of birch bark, because it peels most easily at that time. As everyone knows, there are many layers of bark on a birch tree ranging from the thinnest paper to quite heavy pieces that make very durable canoes. The bark was used for many utilitarian items including buckets, baskets, wigwam covering, and for art. Patterns for decorative art were also made upon the bark, and records of the medicine lodge ritual were kept on birch bark scrolls by marking stories on the bark. However, it is for canoes that it is most famous for the Ojibwe.
For building a canoe, the tree used should have a trunk ten to fifteen inches in diameter, smooth and straight as can be. To find trees with thick bark suitable for canoe, a considerable journey might be necessary to find the best trees for the job. When a tree was selected, it was given a proper ceremony where a hole was dug into the ground at the base of the tree; tobacco placed as an offering. Then, a pipe was smoked and offered to the cardinal directions and to the sky and earth. The tree was then cut down and placed on crossed logs to hold it off the ground. To remove the bark, a long perpendicular slit is made the length desired. From this cut the bark is laid back on either side, with an axe, and peeled from the log. To overcome the natural curl of the bark, the bark is then rolled up inside-out, in proper lengths and tied and carried back to where the canoe will be built.
The framework for the canoe was made of White Cedar or Arbor Vitae because these woods are light, elastic, strong and easy to split. Two lengths are cut: sixteen feet for top rails, and six feet for ribs. The curves of the prow and stern are obtained by slitting the wood twelve times so that it may be bent at the proper angles, tied securely with string, and held in place until dried. A staked form eighteen feet long is next laid out on the ground. The bark is secured between the two stakes so that it cannot slip and is then ready for sewing together. Large rocks are piled inside to overcome any tendency of the bark to curl.
The sewing material that was most used was the root of Jack Pine because it is long and straight. Sewing is done using a White Oak wood awl. Both ends of the string are drawn through the same hole with a lock stitch. The holes are then caulked and made watertight using the pitch of a Balsam, Norway Pine, or White Pine which is boiled with tallow in a kettle.
Decorations were sometimes painted on the finished canoe using dyes such as blue clay and red ochre. Designs might include clan marks painted on each end.
Nearly any kitchen utensil can be made using birch bark, such as funnels for pouring hot liquids, baskets for gathering and storing items, containers for maple sugar, dried fish, meat, or any food. The birch bark is considered a miracle as it tends to keeps foods from spoiling. All sorts of drying trays are made from birch bark. Shallow trays for winnowing wild rice are also made of it. For housing, sheets of bark are sewed together with string and made into birch bark rolls, used as waterproof roofing for wigwams. Sticks tied across the end of the roll keep it from splitting and tearing, and it can be easily rolled back up if necessary using these sticks.
Overall, it was a miraculous and wonderful gift from the creator to the Ojibwe people.
Learn more: Ethnobotany of the Ojibwe Indians by Huron H. Smith. Bulletin of the Milwaukee Public Museum, Vol. 4, No. 3, Pp. 327-525, Plates 46-77 May 2, 1932
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities