A quilled box, made of porcupine quill, birchbark and pine between 1830 and 1849, is part of the “Stitching Ourselves Together” exhibit of Mi’kmaq quill art at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In 2012, while working as historic preservation officer for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Jennifer Pictou surveyed the tribal community in northern Maine about its porcupine quillwork practices, a long tradition for the Mi’kmaq people. What she learned alarmed her.

“I noticed we only had one tribal household in the Presque Isle community that could actually do porcupine quillwork. I thought that was an absolute tragedy,” she said. “Our quillwork is a huge part of our identity. We were known by some tribes as the Porcupine People. We were known as porcupine hunters, and our visual identity, long before colonists came here, was based in being adorned in porcupine quills. That is so critical to our culture.”

They used porcupine quills to decorate arm bands, leg guards, belts, head bands and pieces for hair ornamentation, and even girdles. They made small boxes and baskets with birchbark, spruce roots and quills. Now, the quills mostly come from roadkill or by draping a towel over a live porcupine, which will leave some behind when it wanders out from under it, Pictou said.

A floral necklace and earrings created by Ingrid Brooks, made with porcupine quill birchbark and leather. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Distraught at the dwindling expertise among people in the community and fearful of losing a delicate cultural connection, Pictou used a grant from the National Park Service to revitalize the art form among tribal members. As a result of those efforts, the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor has just opened a new long-term exhibition, “Stitching Ourselves Together: Mi’kmaq Porcupine Quillwork.” The exhibition includes examples of porcupine quillwork from the Abbe collection as well as contemporary quillwork from a new group of artisans, the Quillers of the Dawn, that emerged from Pictou’s revitalization efforts.

It could not be more timely.

The woman who represented the lone household where quillwork was still being practiced, Marline Rose Morey, died June 17 at age 67, just days before the Abbe exhibition opened.

“Without her and without this project, there would have been zero households who knew how to do this,” Pictou said. “When we are talking in terms of timeliness, we have to consider the age of our elders. Every time we lose an elder, we lose a virtual library of information. Without this project and without (Marline’s) involvement in the project, this art form would not have existed for us anymore, at least not in our community.”

“Stitching Ourselves Together,” on view through January 2023, signals the reopening of the Abbe for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The museum, which tells the history and contemporary stories of the Wabanaki people in Maine, is reopening softly, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, with the museum closed on Bar Harbor’s busiest days. Masks will be required.

“We wanted things to actually be safe when we reopened,” said executive director Christopher Newell. “By taking this super-careful approach, we have been able to achieve a safe and enjoyable visitor experience. … We are a museum again. That, in and of itself, is a tremendous feeling.”

For this exhibition, the Abbe turned to the Mi’kmaq community to tell its own story. It’s part of the museum’s ongoing decolonization effort, which involves elevating Wabanaki voices instead of relying mostly on the historians and scholars who have interpreted history until now. In doing so, the Mi’kmaq community reclaimed its own history and corrected what Pictou called “erroneous narratives” of the past perpetrated by academics whose understanding of the quillwork was based on a euro-centric perspective.

The false history the Abbe corrects with “Stitching Ourselves Together” involves the idea that Mi’kmaq quillwork is not traditional and that it is largely devoid of meaning, when the opposite is true, Pictou said. That narrative began during the time of colonization and grew in the 17th and 18th centuries when museums began proliferating and collecting artwork from North American indigenous communities. But in the case of Mi’kmaq quillwork, the work collected represented what Mi’kmaq people made in response to the European market and not what they made for themselves.

Their work had been corrupted by capitalism.

As Mi’kmaqs began engaging with newly arrived European traders, they entered into a system of credit and debt and used the quillwork to barter. “We owed more than we could easily afford to pay off with furs, so the traders said, ‘We really like this quillwork. We can sell this back in Europe,’ and we said OK,” Pictou said.

A chair, made of porcupine quill, birchbark, wood, metal, leather and fabric sometime between 1860-1890, part of the “Stitching Ourselves Together” exhibit of Mi’kmaq quill art at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

That decision led to a preponderance of quillwork made with what is known as the birchbark insertion technique, with quills adorned to birchbark baskets and other decorative items. “We were once known as a tribe that utilized five different stiches,” Pictou said, “but with the higher demand from the European market, we left four stiches behind and concentrated on the birchbark insertion, because it was faster and we could produce things more quickly.”

It became a matter of supply and demand. Instead of headbands, belts and other everyday items that had been part of the tradition, they made decorative baskets. “Once we get into the 1800s, we see the rising middle class and the the expectation for travel. Wealthy Europeans are traveling, wealthy Americans are traveling – to places like Niagara Falls and resort towns like Newport and Bar Harbor. And one expectation of travel is that you would bring back souvenirs, and souvenirs were often commissioned and purchased on site,” Pictou said.

As wealthy Americans built their Victorian mansions, they filled their homes with artwork and souvenirs from their travels “creating a visual feast of textures and colors, and we met that demand by continuing the birchbark insertions,” Pictou said.

The other stitches and other practical uses of quillwork fell away over time. The goal of this project was to reintroduce quillwork, including the forgotten stitches. To help save the art form locally, Pictou hired a Mi’kmaq artist from across the Canadian border, Tara Francis from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to teach local people who were interested in learning.

There are about 1,400 members of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, and they live in small pockets across a wide geographic area on the U.S. side of the border. Another 30,000 or so live in Canada. As a result of being separated by the border and lacking a large land base, the communities in Maine have sometimes struggled to maintain cultural connections, Newell said.

” ‘Stitching Ourselves Together’ is an example of the healing that can come by re-engaging culture in a real and meaningful fashion,” he said. “People will be coming down to see their aunties’ work and sisters’ work and all things like that. That type of representation will inspire the next generation of great Mi’kmaq artists. That is the potential.”

He said the exhibition is a “clear example of the beautiful and awesome and high impact you can create with an exhibition, if it is done properly. It centers the voices of Wabanaki people in their own narrative.”

“2020 Mask,” a COVID-19-style mask by Tara Francis made with porcupine quill, birchbark, sweetgrass, sinew, deer leather, hand-dyed silk and marker. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Stitching Ourselves Together” mixes historic and contemporary work. Francis is among the contemporary artists with work in the exhibition. Others are Sandra Pictou, Donna Sanipass, Tania Morey, Norma Saulis and Roldena Sanipass. Francis made a COVID-19 mask that is part of the exhibition.

Francis began her lessons in November 2019, coming over from New Brunswick to meet the Maine quill workers at a tribal building in Presque Isle. The Abbe transported its collection of Mi’kmaq quillwork to Presque Isle so the dozen members of the group could examine the pieces and learn from them.

“We set up the quillwork so the artisans could interact with it,” said Starr Kelly, curator of education at the Abbe. “We printed off all records that we have, based on who donated what to the museum, and the women found the records were lacking information. Some were incomplete, others were incorrect.”

The weekend was full of important conversations and connections, Kelly said. “Through the objects coming home, stories were coming back to life. Knowledge was coming back to life,” she said.

A floral medallion, created by Norma Jean Saulis, made of porcupine quill, glass beads, epoxy cabochon, interfacing, rhinestone banding, hairpipe beads, thread and sequin material. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Francis found the experience greatly moving. She had only seen photos of quillwork in the Abbe collection, and being able to examine “how our ancestors resolved the problems we still deal with – why they used certain techniques – was really powerful and beautiful. It was like the ancestors were in the room with us, guiding our hands. It was definitely that sense.”

Pictou praised the Abbe for taking the items out of the collection and sharing them with the community where they were made. She called the gesture “mind-blowing. If the Abbe had said, ‘No, we don’t do that. We follow established museum practice where the objects never leave the museum,’ this would not have been possible.” She and Kelly are speaking at a national museum conference this fall about the collaboration, so other museums with collections of indigenous items can learn from the Abbe’s example.

Francis’ lessons continued monthly through March 2020, when they were interrupted by the pandemic, and the grant has since expired. But the Quillers of the Dawn continues. Its dozen members never learned all stitches that have fallen away – plating, wrapping and other techniques – but they continue to learn, and they made museum-quality work along the way.

Pictou, a member of the group, is proud of what they have accomplished. “We are keeping the tradition going, and that was ultimately the whole plan for the grant, to have a self-sustaining group. We had a major setback because of the pandemic, but we are pretty content with the idea right now that we are an established working that group that will continue to meet once it is safe to do so. We are all in agreement about that.”


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