Ottawa

Bringing the art of birchbark biting back into the light

Pat Bruderer, also known as Half Moon Woman, is a knowledge keeper and one of the few practitioners of the reclaimed artform know as birchbark biting — once nearly lost to time.

Cree knowledge keeper brings centuries-old tradition to Ottawa

Artist Pat Bruderer's canvas and design implements are unconventional: she creates intricate designs on birchbark by biting indentations into thin layers of the material. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC News)

Pat Bruderer's mind goes blank when she buries her teeth into her art. 

That's because her canvas and design implements are unconventional: she creates intricate designs on birchbark by biting indentations into thin layers of the material, a process she finds healing, said the member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation located in northern Saskatchewan.

"You can't think about the problems you've had last week," she told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "You can only think about the moment and make your mind blank to be able to channel and transfer that image onto the bark."

Indigenous artists and craftspeople from across Canada, including Bruderer, were in town last week for two events, the Women's Art Conference at the Canadian Museum of History, and this weekend's Indigenous Art Marketplace at the St. Laurent Mall. 

First Nations across Canada used birchbark to make containers and canoes dating back centuries.

Bruderer, also known as Half Moon Woman, is a knowledge keeper and one of the few practitioners of the reclaimed art form, once nearly lost to time. 

"Using my teeth as a tool and biting the image onto the bark," she said, "I use my eye teeth so I can see what I'm doing."

Wants to pass down knowledge

Her love of the style was first sparked 30 years ago after seeing a piece of birchbark-biting art, also known as birch bark transparencies, made by Angelique Merasty Levac, of British Columbia.

"It was absolutely beautiful," Bruderer said. "And the first thing I thought is, 'Wow, I could never do that.' But the only thing that stops you in life from doing anything is yourself." 

Bruderer says her mind goes blank when she bites into the birchbark. Self-taught, she's learned how to make intricate designs in the material. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Self-taught, Bruderer now wants to pass her knowledge down and is teaching her daughter, Raeanna Sinclair, also known as Morning Star.

Sinclair said she's practised the form for approximately 25 years but still considers herself an apprentice. 

"I haven't mastered bees yet. I'm really good at flowers," her daughter said. "But I can't do anything complex like my mother."

Pat Bruderer of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation creates intricate designs on thin layers of birch bark one bite at a time. Hallie Cotnam caught up with the artist ahead of this weekend’s Indigenous Women’s Art Conference and the Indigenous Art Marketplace.

Still, Sinclair hopes it's knowledge she'll one day share with others. 

"I just love the resurgence in birchbark biting, and I love that I can be a part of the resurgence," she said. "And maybe even pass down to like, my children, [my] children's children like and other children, too."

Bruderer said choosing the right kind of bark, from the tree of the right size, colour and with few or no knots, may take a whole day. She said many people don't realize that the peeled-away layers of birchbark are translucent — and when held up to light "takes you to a whole different world."

Having helped brought the art form back into the light, she said it's up to future generations to continue the tradition. 

"What everybody strives for is to leave their footprint," she said. "And I think I've left my tooth print."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Tunney reports for CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca

With files from Hallie Cotnam

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