Reviving a Lost Native Art

Micmacs are learning to embroider as their ancestors did — with porcupine quills.

Micmac quillwork
By Melissa Lizotte
Photographed by Tristan Spinski

In the early 1600s, French colonizers in what’s now northern Maine and Atlantic Canada wrote admiringly of the native Micmacs’ ornamented fur and leather apparel — robes, bracelets, belts, and hairpieces dazzlingly embroidered with dyed porcupine quills. Just 100 years later, missionaries described a dramatically changed tribe, one decimated by European diseases and impoverished by its interactions with unscrupulous traders. Gone were the exquisite garments; in their place, the clergymen wrote, were “intolerably ragged” garments of cloth.

“It was like losing our language,” says Jennifer Pictou, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, one of 29 bands that compose the Micmac (or Mi’kmaw) Nation and the only one in the United States. “When we create art, it’s more than just making something. We’re sharing our language, stories, life lessons, and tribal knowledge.”

Now, Pictou and her colleague Donna Sanipass are working to revive quill embroidery in their community. With funds from a National Park Service Tribal Heritage Grant, they’ve hired Tara Francis, a Micmac artist from New Brunswick, to teach quillwork at the band’s community center in Presque Isle. The program began last fall when Jodi DeBruyne, director of collections and research for the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, brought several embroidered artifacts to the center for a one-day exhibit.

Quillwork was once so endemic to Micmac culture that colonists called them “the porcupine people.” It was practiced almost exclusively by women, whose methods included weaving quills into strips worn as armbands or headdresses; wrapping or plaiting quills around bows, shaman rattles, knife handles, and the like; and stitching quills onto leather clothing.

round box with classic chevron pattern; Micmac quillwork
Micmac chair with quill-and-birchbark panels
round box lid with classic chevron pattern; Micmac quillwork
box with uncommon zigzag pattern; Micmac quillwork
wall pocket with lozenge motif; Micmac quillwork

Nineteenth-century porcupine-quill artifacts from the collection of the Abbe Museum. Clockwise from top left: round box with classic chevron pattern; chair with quill-and-birchbark panels; box with uncommon zigzag pattern; wall pocket with lozenge motif; round box lid with chevron motif and solid bands.

Micmac women also decorated birchbark bowls, boxes, and other objects by laying the quills over the bark and inserting the ends into holes. This technique outlasted the others because they were able to craft souvenirs for European tourists at a time when their people were desperate and in debt to shady fur traders. “We owed money, but we couldn’t get money unless we had something to sell,” Pictou says. “We didn’t have time to produce quill embroidery for ourselves.”

In her book Micmac Quillwork, Ruth Holmes Whitehead says the Micmacs’ “almost perfectly balanced” ways of living, including art making, broke down as large numbers of their people perished from diseases brought to North America by colonists. In addition, materials acquired in trade, such as cloth, buttons, and beads, supplanted leather, fur, and quills.

At the workshops in Presque Isle, students have created quill-and-birchbark broaches, earrings, and hairpieces. In the coming months, Francis, one of just a handful of Micmacs adept at quill embroidery, will show the women how to harvest bark without harming trees and teach other techniques. The hope is to form a group of embroiderers who sell their work at craft shows and teach the skill to apprentices.

One of the participants, Sandra Pictou (Jennifer’s sister-in-law), says the women have gained a strengthened sense of camaraderie and a deeper connection to their traditions. “It was something we hadn’t been part of for a long time,” she says. “We sat and talked and worked with our hands, the way our ancestors would have passed the time. I think we knew that we were just scratching the surface.”