Commissioned as a gift for a spiritual leader
among the Three Fires communities of Walpole Island, Ontario,
Canada, this quill box by Clarence Pangowish honors the leader's
clan and their role as keepers or protectors of medicine.
Porcupine quills have inspired recent research into improving the
design of hypodermic needles and surgical staples, but Nishnabé
people have used them for practical and artistic purposes for hundreds
Quill art uses the structure of the mammal's primary defense mechanism
to create sturdy and beautiful hand-made applique quill boxes, headdresses,
jewelry and much more. While some traditional items serve utilitarian
functions, the vast majority of the objects made in the last 150
years remain purely artistic.
However, it is a dying art form. Wasauksing First Nation member
Shelley Baker carries on the tradition today, teaching other tribal
members how to collect gawyek (quills), wigwas (birch
bark) and wishkbemishkos (sweetgrass).
"What people don't realize or understand is the work that goes
into gathering your supplies for making a quill box. I was really
fortunate at a very young age, like 6, 7 years old, and getting
those teachings from my grandmother. So when I go out, I close my
eyes, and she's with me. She's with me all the time," she said.
Finding the necessities
Baker began making quill boxes at 8 years old or younger. She remembers
modeling the style after her grandmother's and aunt's work, always
attempting to mimic their beauty and precision.
"It was a really great time for me as a child growing up to have
that with her, and
her showing me how to pluck the porcupine
and what to do," Baker said.
"There's a lot of Aboriginal women or men that I've met who have
their different ways or different teachings of how they gather the
The surrounding community knows her as a quillwork artist. She
obtains porcupines to pluck from others who come across roadkill
and either call her or bring them to her home. She does not hunt.
Removing the quills while preserving their structure requires practice.
"I look for someone that has a woodstove for like the ashes from
They give me a better grip when I start from
behind the head of the porcupine and then pull the quills out,"
Both the seasons and the porcupine's age make the task more or
less complicated and affect the quality.
"Porcupines aren't good during July and August because it's almost
like they're molting their quills, and in the ends of the bottom
of the quills, they retain water or they break off. So they're no
good to use unless you're making, let's say, necklaces or earrings,"
Older porcupines sport longer, stronger pieces, and their thick
winter coats present an additional challenge. She pulls the quills
whole with no breaks or tears.
"Once I'm done with the porcupine, then I go bury it," Baker said.
"And I thank the Creator for the gift that they have given me, and
I put my tobacco down."
Painting a picture
Baker cleans the quills before beginning the coloring process.
Dyeing the quills requires a significant amount of time, especially
to achieve different shades of certain hues.
"I put water in (a pot) to boil, and then I'll pour the dye in
there, the powder dye, and make sure that it's all mixed into the
hot water. And then I add just a little bit of vinegar because the
vinegar holds the color," Baker said.
After sorting the colors, she closes her eyes and envisions the
image she hopes to make after threading the quills to the birch
bark. Some of her favorites include animals and different flowers.
The soaking and hot water make them flexible enough to build three-dimensional
structures as part of a box lid. Baker has made many boxes for her
"I used to do cool pictures for my mom, and I used to do Blue Jays.
And when people would look at my quillwork, they were like, 'Those
aren't quills. That's a picture.' I said, 'No, they're quills,'"
she said and laughed.
Sorting the quills and placing them side by side is a time-consuming
process, meant for those with a steady hand and vigilance to the
art. Baker's eyes often tire by the end of a long session, and she
prefers natural light while working. The more important lesson behind
the process of creating a box escaped her as a child.
"You have to have patience to do this," Baker said. "At a very
young age when I learned, not knowing what my grandmother was teaching
me at the time until I got older she taught me patience,
which I have a lot of."
Now, she passes on quillwork to others and believes in the importance
of Native Americans returning to their cultures and unique art forms.
She provides constructive criticism while watching students work,
providing tips and teaching them how to fix mistakes.
"I always say, 'It's your first one. It's going to be unique. It's
your creation,' which, it is. And the thing is with teaching kids
or teaching other communities, adults, elders, watching their creations
it's just beautiful because it's theirs," Baker said.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center displays
several pieces of quill art, including boxes. Some are available
for online viewing at potawatomiheritage.com.