British Columbia

Birch bark biter inspired to pass on her craft in honour of her mentor

B.C. birch bark biter Angelique Merasty Levac is passing on her craft, in hopes her granddaughter will pass it down to the next generations of "little biters."

Angelique Merasty Levac learned the skill from a renowned artist of — coincidentally — the same name

Angelique Merasty Levac, left, and her granddaughter Mercedez Angelique Levac show off some of their birch bark biting art with Angelique's great-granddaughter, whom she calls 'Little Biter.' (Kate Partridge/CBC)

A chance encounter with a magazine at a post office in Uranium City, Sask., led Angelique Merasty Levac to a life she never expected, as one of the most celebrated birch bark biters in the world.

In the pages of that magazine, she found someone with her same name — Angelique Merasty, a world renowned birch bark biter. Merasty was looking for someone to pass her craft on to in her later years and joked that she needed to find a pupil before she lost all her teeth. 

Levac, who now lives in Prince George, B.C., was hooked.

"I was so obsessed over this magazine, I'd read it every night," she said.

Birch bark biters create intricate designs by folding a strip of birch bark several times and making tiny impressions in the bark by biting down, delicately. When the bark is unfolded, it reveals a symmetrical design. 

According to Cree artist Pat Bruderer, First Nations across Canada used birch bark to make containers and canoes. The craft dates back centuries in Indigenous communities across Canada.

Before long, Levac made the first of many journeys to Beaver Lake, Sask., to visit her soon-to-be mentor. When a seasonal miscalculation prevented her from reaching her destination, she returned home to Uranium City feeling disappointed but even more determined. 

She made her second attempt in 1981, showing up on Merasty's doorstep in the middle of a prairie blizzard. 

"She was my best friend," Levac said. "We laughed. We used to go out and hunt for our birch bark and peel it." 

Birch bark is described as similar to cigarette paper, and it must be very thin and pliable for biting. (Kate Partridge/CBC)

Levac compares birch bark to cigarette paper, and for it to work for art, it must be very thin and pliable. 

"Takes me a long time to find a good one," she said. Her favourite design to create is a hummingbird. 

Levac said birch bark biting was a "dying art," and that Merasty was one of, if not the only, birch bark biter committed to preserving it. 

Birch bark biter Angelique Merasty Levac shows some of her framed work. (Kate Partridge/CBC)

Levac's business, Angelique's Native Arts in Prince George, B.C., has become a centre for Indigenous artists and artisans in the region. She sells her own art as well.

Now, about 40 years since she first learned the craft, Levac is passing on the skill to her granddaughter, Mercedez Angelique Levac. 

"My grandmother? She's a legend," Mercedez said while holding her two-month-old daughter, affectionately called "Little Biter" by her great grandmother. 

Levac hopes her granddaughter will pass on the art form to her own daughter and keep the tradition alive for generations to come. 

"I feel good that I'm passing it on because there's not very many of us doing this," she said.

"[Mercedez] is a natural artist, so I'm glad I passed it on to her."

To hear more from the artist, tap here: 

With files from Courtney Dickson