Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


The Many Uses of Bark by Canadian Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Among the resources of nature utilized by the tribes of North America bark was of prime importance. It was stripped from trees at the right season by hacking all around and taking it off in sheets of desired length. The inner bark of cedar, elm, and other trees was in some localities torn into strips, shredded, twisted, and spun or woven. The bark of wild flax (Apocynum) and the Asclepias were made into soft textiles. Bark had a multitude of functions. In connection with the most important of wants, the necessity for food, it supplied many tribes with an article of diet in the spring, their period of greatest need. The name Adirondack, signifying 'they eat trees,' was applied by the Mohawk to certain Algonquian tribes of Canada in allusion to their custom of eating bark. The N. Pacific and some S. W. tribes made cakes of the soft inner bark of the hemlock and spruce; those living about the Great lakes chewed that of the slippery elm, while many Indians chewed the gum that exuded from trees. Drink was made from bark by the Arapaho, Winnebago, and Mescaleros. Willow bark and other kinds were smoked in pipes with or instead of tobacco, and the juices of barks were employed in medicine.


For gathering, carrying, garnering, preparing, and serving food, bark of birch, elm, pine, and other trees was so handy as to discourage the potter's art among non-sedentary tribes. It was wrought into yarn, twine, rope, wallets, baskets, mats, canoes, cooking pots for hot stones, dishes for serving, vessels for storing, and many textile utensils connected with the consumption of food in ordinary and in social life. Both men and women were food gatherers, and thus both sexes were refined through this material; but preparing and serving were women's arts, and here bark aided in developing their skill and intelligence.


Habitations in Canada , E. United States , and S. E. Alaska often had roofs and sides of bark, whole or prepared. The conical house, near kin of the tipi, was frequently covered with this material. Matting was made use of for floors, beds, and partitions. Trays and boxes, receptacles of myriad shapes, could be formed by merely bending large sheets and sewing or simply tying the joints. Bast could be pounded and woven into robes and blankets. The Canadian and Alaskan tribes carried their children in cradles of birch bark, while on the Pacific coast infants were borne in wooden cradles or baskets of woven bark on beds of the bast shredded, their foreheads being often flattened by means of pads of the same material. In the S. W. the baby-board had a cover of matting. Among the Iroquois the dead were buried in coffins of bark. Clothing of bark was made chiefly from the inner portion, which was stripped into ribbons, as for petticoats in the S. W., shredded and fringed; as in the cedar-bark country, where it was also woven into garments, or twisted for the warp is weaving articles of dress, with woof from other materials. Dyes were derived from bark and certain kinds also lent themselves to embroidery with quills and overlaying in basketry. Bark was also the material of slow-matches and torches, served as padding for the carrier's head and back and as his wrapping material, and furnished strings, ropes, and bags for his wooden canoes. The hunter made all sorts of apparatus from bark, even his bowstring. The fisher wrought implements out of it and poisoned fish with its juices. The beginnings of writing in some localities were favoured by bark, and cartography, winter counts, medical formulas, and tribal history were inscribed thereon. Finally it comes into the service of ceremony and religion. Such a series of masks and dance regalia as Bole and others found among the Kwakiutl illustrates how obligingly bark lends itself to co-operative activities, whether in amusement, social functions or adoration of the spirit world. There are also rites connected with gathering and working bark.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 55-56.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College