Porcupine quills, tails and tales

Pictured is porcupine embroidery on a birch bark box. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

Ojibwa legend tells that long ago, when the world was young, porcupines had no quills. One day in the woods Bear came along and wanted to eat Porcupine but he escaped to safety by climbing a tree. The following day Porcupine was under a Hawthorne tree and noticed how the thorns pricked him.

He broke off some of the branches and put them on his back. Then he went back into the woods and waited. Along came Bear, who jumped on top of Porcupine. But the little animal just curled up into a ball. Bear had to go away because the thorns pricked him so much.

Nanabozho (an Ojibwa trickster figure and culture hero) saw what happened. After Porcupine explained, Nanabozho took some Hawthorne branches and peeled the bark off until they were white.

Then he put some clay on the back of Porcupine and stuck the thorns in it. Nanabozho used his magic to make it part of Porcupine’s skin, then they went back to the forest and waited. Wolf came along and saw Porcupine and jumped on him, but the new quills pricked at him and Wolf ran away. Bear was also afraid of the quills and Porcupine was safe. This is why all porcupines have quills today.

The porcupine’s quills are made of keratin, each quill has microscopic barbs starting close to the tip and increasing in number back to the shoulder of the shaft, which cause the quills to stick. Newborn “porcupettes” are born with hundreds of soft, hollow quills that harden for defensive use within half an hour after birth. Even before they are fully dry the porcupette can raise its quills and will turn its back and swat with its quill-studded tail if approached by any moving object except its mother. A fully-grown porcupine has approximately 30,000 quills, constantly growing new quills to replace the ones they lose.

The Ojibwa and other aboriginal groups developed crafts using the quills for decoration. Quill work on bark is an ancient art, as old or older than sewn quill embroidery, both Native American traditions for probably thousands of years. Porcupine quill decoration on bark is not as well-known as porcupine quill embroidery on leather, and compared to sewn embroidery on leather, it is less time consuming but is admittedly much easier to learn.

Much like a staple, either end of each quill passes through perforation made in the bark. Perforations are made with an awl in closely-spaced pairs following a pattern laid out with a scribe or marker. The pointed, barbed end of the quill makes a natural needle to thread the quill through the holes in the bark.

The layered nature of the birch tree’s bark holds quill in place, especially as the previously soaked quills stiffen as they dry. After each quill is threaded through the pair of holes the ends are bent under on the back side and then usually covered with a liner sewn on to hide and protect the ends of the quills.

If the holes in the bark are made small enough, and hold the quills very tightly, expert quill workers will snip off the ends of the quills on the backside of the birch bark. The quills can be dyed or beads can be incorporated to add color. Patterns are made by placing the quills in parallel rows, offsetting them slightly, or crossing the quills into stars or fans give the decorated bark an elegant look of embroidery.

Care must be taken in harvesting both the quills and the birch bark so as not to harm the animals or the trees. Bark does not have to be harvested from live trees, it can be harvested from dead or fallen trees.

When harvesting from live trees, great care should be taken not damage the inner bark which can kill the tree. Likewise, quills can be harvested from dead animals or a blanket can be used to collect quills without harming the animal.

Another Ojibwa legend counsels what can happen when you don’t respect the porcupine. Two young girls went out to set traps one nice winter day. When they happened upon a porcupine, the older girl said, “Let’s take that porcupine and pull out all his quills so he freezes.” The younger girl said, “No, no! Don’t do such a thing.” But the first girl caught the porcupine and plucked out his quills and hair. Once she let him go, he climbed to safety in a tree. When he reached the top, he faced north and sang to Ka-bi-bo-na-kay (the north wind) asking him to send the greatest snow storm ever known. Soon it began to blow from the north, terribly cold, with driving snow. The girls became frightened and started for home, but in the blinding snow they lost their way and became separated. The younger girl at last stumbled into camp, exhausted and half frozen, but the girl who had tortured the porcupine was never seen again.

The Marquette Regional History Center is offering a Native American Quill and Beadwork Discussion and Workshop on from 6-8 p.m. Nov. 1.

Learn about the history of these traditional crafts from NMU Instructor Leora Lancaster and then try your hand at practicing some of the techniques. Materials included in the workshop fee. Limited to 15 people, advance sign up only. The workshop fee is $25 and is non-refundable. Please visit marquettehistory.org for details on this one of a kind event.

Or call 906-226-3571 for more info.