Indigenous

Giving life to roadkill with art

Harvesting animals that have been killed by cars is a sustainable way to acquire material such as porcupine quills and bird feathers. It's also a way for these Indigenous artists to reconnect with their traditional arts.

Indigenous artists reconnect to the land by harvesting quills, feathers from animals hit by cars

Erin Konsmo of Sioux Lookout, Ont., uses dyed fish scales and porcupine quills to create these birch bark earrings in the shape of fish. (Submitted by Erin Konsmo)

A stiff, lifeless porcupine on the side of the road might be overlooked by passers-by, but it could be a prize for these Indigenous artists. 

There is of course a point where the animal cannot be harvested, but before advanced decay sets in there is an opportunity to pull quills that can be used in traditional arts and crafts. 

These Indigenous artists integrate harvested and found materials to create beautiful pieces of art and jewellery. 

They say it's a sustainable way to incorporate quills, hides and feathers into art while also reconnecting with the land and honouring those animals. 

Erin Konsmo harvests porcupine quills to be used in earrings created with birch bark. (Submitted by Erin Konsmos)

Erin Konsmo is a Métis artist currently living in Sioux Lookout, Ont., who harvests porcupine quills and deer brains from animals that have lost their lives on roads. 

The quills are used for pins and jewellery made with birch bark accented with dyed fish scales and the brains are used for a centuries-old method of tanning hides. 

Honouring the lives of the animals

They say it's a way to honour the lives of those animals as much as possible while also acknowledging the difficult history that Indigenous people have had with roads. Konsmo prefers the use of they/them pronouns. 

"Roads were built to help get access to land, especially land that was profitable for resource development," Konsmo says. "So really the loss of the lives of these animals is because of that history."

Artist Shane Perley-Dutcher of the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick incorporates dyed porcupine quills with silver wire to create delicate earrings. (Submitted by Shane Perley-Dutcher)

Five years ago Konsmo harvested their first porcupine with their mother and says it was a good way to bond. 

As they harvested the porcupine, Konsmo says they talked about the beauty of its paws and gentle face, which really created a deeper appreciation for the animal. 

Konsmo also catches animals and says that whether they're being caught or found, the process requires reciprocity. 

"Even if you find it on the side of the road, always putting that tobacco down and giving thanks for its life."

More than one approach 

Every animal and situation is different.

"It's kind of a morbid evolution of the collecting practice," says Shane Perley-Dutcher, a councillor for the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick and a mixed media artist.  

"Benefiting from its unfortunate demise being hit on the road, but I'd rather see some part of it get used." 

Shane Perley-Dutcher is a silversmith by trade but also carves custom masks that he accents with material that he has harvested or found such as feathers, quills and twigs. (Submitted by Shane Perley-Dutcher)

He works as a trained silversmith running his own business, but also creates custom pieces like masks adorned with feathers and quills harvested from roadkill. 

There isn't one approach that he takes to harvesting animals, but sometimes when running low on materials like feathers and quills, Perley-Dutcher will keep an active eye on the roadside.

"I will definitely collect them you know say a prayer, lay some tobacco down and then I'll bring them to my studio to see if there's any potential there."

If an animal has been laying for too long or has had a particularly violent death then he won't use it. 

Laws around harvesting found animals vary province to province. In Ontario, if you find or are given a dead animal you can generally keep it although large mammals, birds of prey and fur-bearing mammals, such as coyotes, need to be registered.

For more details on laws and practices please contact your local ministry of natural resources or the Canadian Wildlife Service.

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.