Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Boxes and Chests of the Canadian Indian



[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.]



The distribution of tribes using boxes and chests illustrates in a striking manner the effect of environment on arts and customs. Thus woodland tribes made boxes of suitable timber, and the culmination of their manufacture is found among the tribes of the N. W. coast. The [Inuit] had a great variety of small boxes of bone, wood, whalebone, and ivory, and displayed extraordinary skill and inventiveness in their manufacture. This was in large measure due to their damp and freezing environment, in which, though wood was scarce, boxes were better than pouches for keeping the contents dry. It appears that to the introduction of tobacco, percussion caps, and powder is due the great number of small boxes manufactured by the [Inuit], although they had previously many boxes for trinkets, lanceheads, tinder, etc. [Inuit] boxes are provided with cords for fastening them to the person to prevent loss in the snow. Boxes and chests, being difficult of transportation even on water, must be looked for chiefly among sedentary tribes living in a wooded country. Tribes that moved freely about stored and transported their goods in bags, rawhide cases, and basket wallets. Boxes and chests of wood are practically unknown among the Plains tribes, which had abundant skins of large animals out of which to make receptacles for their possessions, and the horse and the dog as pack and draught animals. Some of the Plains tribes, however, made box-like cases or trunks of rawhide similar in shape to the birch-bark boxes of the eastern tribes, and the Sioux made plume boxes of wood. Objects and materials that could be injured by crushing or by dampness usually required a box, the most widespread use of which was for the storing of feathers. The Plains tribes and some others made parfleches, or cases of rawhide, almost as rigid as a wooden box, for head-dresses, arrows, etc.; the Pima, Papago, and Mohave made basket cases for feathers; and the Pueblos employed a box, usually excavated from a single piece of cottonwood, solely for holding the feathers used in ceremonies. The Yurok of California made a cylindrical wooden box in two sections for storing valuables. The eastern woodland tribes made boxes of birch bark. The N. W. coast tribes as far S. as Washington made large chests of wood for storing food, clothing, etc.; for cooking, for ripening salmon eggs, for the interment of the dead, for drums and other uses, and these were usually decorated with carving or painting, or both. These tribes also made long boxes as quivers for arrows, but smaller boxes were not so common among them as among the [Inuit].


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. 69-70.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College