Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 10, 2001 - Issue 31



Why Porcupine has Quills


Chippewa Legend


Long ago, when the world was young, porcupines had no quills. One day when Porcupine was in the woods, Bear came along and wanted to eat him. But Porcupine climbed to the top of a tree and was safe.

The next day, when Porcupine was under a hawthorn tree, he noticed how the thorns pricked him. He had an idea. He broke off some of the branches of the hawthorn and put them on his back. Then he went into the woods and wait for Bear. When Bear sprang on Porcupine, the little animal just curled himself up in a ball. Bear had to go away, for the thorns pricked him very much.

Nanabozho saw what happened. He called Porcupine to him and asked, "How did you know that trick?"

"I am always in danger when Bear comes along," replied Porcupine."When I saw those thorns, I thought I would use them."

So Nanabozho took some branches from the hawthorn tree and peeled off the bark until they were white. Then he put some clay on the back of Porcupine, stuck the thorns in it, and made the whole a part of his skin.

"Now go into the woods," said Nanabozho.

Porcupine obeyed, and Nanabozho hid himself behind a tree.

Soon Wolf came along. He sprang on Porcupine and then ran away, howling. Bear came along, but he did not get near Porcupine. He was afraid of those thorns.

That is why all porcupines have quills today.


Print and Color Your Own Porupine

Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

When we are lucky enough to spot most mammals, its usually as they are running away. But porcupines like to sit quietly in trees, so if they live in your area and you spot one, you're likely to get a pretty long look. Even when porcupines are on the ground, they shuffle and waddle along—this animal doesn't need speed. The thousands of quills it carries on its back provide plenty of protection from predators.

The porcupine is a medium-sized rodent, related to mice and rats and beaver. An adult animal is about 50 cm long (20 inches,) not counting the tail, and weighs from 4.5 to 13 kg (10 to 28 pounds.) Long black and brown guard hairs cover its body and quills are mixed in among them. Quills are really modified hairs.

Porcupines are nocturnal, which means they are actively primarily at night. In winter they like to munch on bark and evergreen needles. In summer they wander around fields and orchards in search of warm weather snacks, such as grasses, leaves, dandelions, clover and other wildflowers. Porcupines can swim, so pond weeds, water lilies, and arrowhead are all part of the summer diet.

Porcupines enjoy munching on a variety of trees--hemlock, fir, and pine, as well as maple, beech, birch, oak, elm, cherry and willow. They also eat all kinds of woody shrubs. These animals have been known to gnaw on other wood objects, such as old boards and even houses. They are attracted by salt and may chew on any tool handle that has salt left from human sweat.

When not in trees or feeding, porcupines prefer the protection of a den. Dens can be found in rock crevices, caves, hollow logs, abandoned mines, and even under houses and barns.

Of course, the most famous characteristic of this animal are the quills. When a porcupine is threatened, it assumes a defensive posture—head and shoulders lowered, back to the threat, every quill erect, tail thrashing back and fourth. This is usually enough to scare away any would-be predator. Quills come out of the porcupine's skin easily, but they quickly become embedded in the enemy, working their way in deeper and deeper. Not only is this painful, it can be fatal.

In spite of this prickly suit of armor, there are some animals that prey on porcupines. The fisher is the most formidable predator, but great horned owls, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and wolves will make a meal out of the porcupine if there's an opportunity.

Porcupines live in most of the western United States and parts of the Northeast, and throughout Canada.

Quick Facts:

  • Porcupines can NOT throw their quills.
  • Porcupine vision is poor, but they have an excellent sense of smell.
  • Porcupines make shrill screeches, whines, and low grunts.
  • Porcupines are vegetarians, and they eat a large variety of plants, shrubs and trees.
  • Baby porcupines are called "porcupettes."
  • Porcupines are not territorial, and their home range may be as large as 200 acres.
  • A group of porcupines (or hedgehogs, actually) is called a "prickle

Brandy's Porcupine Page




A technique practiced for centuries in many parts of North America, quillwork was the primary form of decoration for the majority of tribes living in areas where the porcupine (the second largest rodent in North America) could be found. Colored, geometric bands of quills were folded and twisted to make complex patters on baskets, in jewellery or on gloves. Around 1840, quillworking began to decline when native women started using beads to decorate garments.

A healthy adult porcupine will have approximately 30,000 off-white quills. It is best to use a porcupine caught at the time of year when it is relatively lean. To collect the quills, women would approach a porcupine and throw a blanket over it. As a defence mechanism, the porcupine would raise its quills into the blanket. The quills would get caught on the blanket and the women could then pull them off of the porcupine. The women would then remove the blanket and pick the quills out. Four sizes of quills are found on the porcupine. The large, coarse quills from the tail are best for filling in large areas, wrapping handles, pipe stems or fringes. Quills from the porcupine's back are good for loom work. The fine quills from the neck are ideal for embroidery. The thinnest quills found near the belly are used for delicate lines.

The quills were dyed and sorted before work began. The colours were often bright but reflected the tones of the Earth and their true vegetable origin: plants and berries in mauves and purples, engorged reds and lichen-pale yellows.

A natural dye for red included the following ingredients: Choke cherry or wild plum, Tamarack bark, Spruce cones, Sumac berries, Alder and Hemlock inner bark, Poke berry, Bloodroot, Sassafras, Red Bed straw, Buffalo-berry (Lepargyrea), Currants, Red Osier Dogwood and Red cedar. The quills are added to a prepared dye in a large pot and simmered for 1/2 to 3 hours.

The quills must not be boiled or they will become soft and can often turn to glue. After dying, the quills are spread out to air dry. Once dry, they were rubbed with animal oils to keep them from drying out and becoming brittle. After contact with Europeans, colours were often obtained by boiling quills with woollen trade cloth. Later, tar-coal dyes became available and a wider range of colours was possible.

Quillwork is usually done on a backing of hide or birch bark. Once the design is marked, the blunt end of the quill is carefully clipped so the air inside can escape. Quills are made pliable by soaking but this method also weakens the quill allowing it to stretch and break during the work. The old method of holding the quills in the mouth is still the best as the natural action of saliva on the quills allows them to become pliable without stretching. The quill is then flattened either against a hard surface, or the barbed end is held in one's teeth and the quill pinched flat.

The quills were traditionally sewn with sinew stripped from tendons on each side of the backbone of the buffalo or deer. Today, the quills are stitched in place with thread or dental floss and the quill is folded over to hide the thread. A new quill is placed under the old one at the place where the thread crosses it. The black barbed tip of the old quill is cut off and hidden under the folded quill. Quilling stitches include: straight, overhand, line, straight double, checkerboard, shadow, sawtooth, diamond, rick rack, and circles.

Native Tech-Quillwork


Quillwork Techniques

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