Saskatchewan

Mother daughter team keep birchbark crafting alive in north Sask.

Teresa and Rosie McLeod share their knowledge of birchbark crafting at community events and with young people in order to keep the craft alive in northern Sask.

Teresa and Rosie McLeod, from Stanley Mission, Sask., share knowledge at community events

Rosie McLeod works at a table she and her mother Teresa had set up at the Pinehouse Elders' Gathering, where they were sharing their knowledge of birchbark biting and basket making with people. (Bryan Eneas/CBC Sask)

A dynamic duo with generations of knowledge in birchbark crafts are doing their part to keep the tradition alive in northern Sask.

Teresa and Rosie McLeod from Stanley Mission, Sask., travel to various northern communities and events to share what they know about working with birchbark. They weave baskets and use their teeth to produce art.

"Me and my daughter, [Rosie] started when she was 12, she'd sit down and start biting the birchbark and learning the craft," Teresa said. "We do it basically just to keep the tradition going."

It's a craft that Teresa learned when she was just a young girl from both sets of her grandparents. In the summertime, she would spend time with her grandmothers as they made baskets to carry the blueberries they picked during the harvest.

Teresa would peel the bark for them while they worked.

In her 20s she started making the baskets herself. Teresa said she never sold many, she did it to keep the art form going.

Rosie explained that people who work with birchbark look for smoothness in the trees. Pieces without knots or branches are the most ideal candidates to be worked with.

Teresa said this time of year is the best time to harvest birchbark for their craft.

"I usually gauge between June 10, 12, anytime in that week or so, it all depends on the weather and you'll be able to go out and get your birch, check your birch trees," she said.

"Sometimes when you go out, they're not peeling. My grandpa used to say when the birch is ready, it'll sing for you. As your cutting the birchbark off, it'll open up and it'll basically fall off the tree."

Students at Winnipeg's Oakenwald School literally sank their teeth into learning about Indigenous tradition this week, as Cree artist Pat Bruderer spent three days showing kindergarten to Grade 6 classes the rare art form of birch bark biting. 0:56

Teresa said that anyone who harvests birchbark usually has about five or six different areas they will go to find their medium. Sometimes, artists will get lucky in the middle of the fall, but often times summer is the ideal time to harvest the bark.

She said when bark is collected in June, it's less likely to kill the tree. She said harvesters only work within a few of their collection areas per year in order to save bark for future years.

It takes about six to 10 years for the bark to re-grow, depending on how hot the years are and how much moisture there is according to Teresa.

"We depend on nature, the way it grows," Teresa said. "A couple years ago, four or five patches of birch were burned because of fires."

She said she hasn't thought much about what kind of impact climate change will have on the future of her craft, but she said that most birch grows near areas where lots of moisture exists, like rivers, lakes or muskeg.

"You look at the moss, the ground, the moss on the pine trees, how thick they are," Teresa said. "You don't go right into the thick bush, you prefer to go in where the pines are a little more sparser."

Teresa said she likes to use the baskets she makes when she goes blueberry picking, because with a bum knee, it's easier for her to carry. They are also much better for drying the berries than plastic pails, she said.

Passing skills to younger generations

Rosie said there is a lot of interest in working with birchbark in the younger generation.

"I make them sit there and learn the peeling part, then show them how to fold [the bark], then I show them that you bite with the teeth that can touch best, then just try and make a line or a circle," Rosie said. "They're really happy with how it comes out."

Rosie explained that the birchbark is folded in half, and the artist uses the points of their teeth that touch when the mouth is closed to create the patterns on the wood.

Rosie says the birchbark is peeled away from the wood, then is folded in half and the artist uses the points of their teeth that touch when the mouth is closed to create the patterns. (Bryan Eneas/CBC News)

But a particularly challenging element to the craft happens before the pattern is even created, which is separating the birchbark from the wood itself according to Rosie.

Rosie said it took her at least 15 years to get a handle on the craft.

"It's enjoyable and relaxing and you get to know people when they want to learn stuff like this," Rosie said. "They ask a lot of questions."

Teresa said the best way to care for birchbark items is to neglect them.

She said she personally has a basket that was made by her grandmother, who died over 30 years ago. Part of the reason it's lasted so long is because she hasn't used it for anything.

She said she also has a soap dish that was gifted to her by her other grandmother at her wedding well over 40 years ago.

"The colour on the roots are a little faded, but otherwise it's still in good shape, and I say that's from neglect," Teresa said. "Once you get your birchbark basket and you store it wherever you're going to put it, but you've got to remember not to over dry it."

Once the wood starts drying, the slightest of touches can crack the artwork according to Teresa.

Duo values passage of knowledge rather than dollars

Rosie sells her work for $15 to $25 for birch biting art, which often features geometric shapes and patterns.
Teresa said she doesn't feel good knowing that sometimes, birch biting can fetch prices into the hundreds of dollars when sold commercially.

"Even with our beadwork, we do the beadwork, we do the moose hides, if we turned around and charged $350 we'd be told it's too much," Teresa said. "But if we told and asked a non-Native person to sell that, they'd say no problem."

Students at Winnipeg's Oakenwald School literally sank their teeth into learning about Indigenous tradition this week, as Cree artist Pat Bruderer spent three days showing kindergarten to Grade 6 classes the rare art form of birch bark biting. 2:06

Teresa said sometimes she feels like Indigenous artists aren't valued for what they do, and Rosie said sometimes it feels like others are trying to take credit for the work that Indigenous people created.

Teresa said she's concerned that the art might end up being overly commercialized and created in China.

"If you can buy authentic art for $30, why do you want to buy something for 10 bucks when you really don't know where the wood comes from?" Teresa asked.

About the Author

Bryan Eneas

Web Writer

Bryan Eneas is a journalist from the Penticton Indian Band currently based in Regina, Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC, he worked in Prince Albert reporting in central and northern Saskatchewan. You can contact him at Bryan.Eneas@cbc.ca.