Motley woman preserves her heritage through quill work

Juanita Blackhawk has been creating art with porcupine quills for 20 years

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Juanita Blackhawk, who says she is about 3/4 Anishinabe Indian, also known as Minnesota Chippewa, is keeping one aspect of her heritage alive by both doing quill work and teaching the art to others.

Juanita Blackhawk, Motley, shows one of the dance bags she made from deer skin, porcupine quills and sweet grasses.

“I have a Heinz 57 ancestry,” she said. “But when filling out forms, I just put down Indian or Native American. I got tired of checking off every box.” Blackhawk said she has some African, Swedish, Norwegian and a bit of French in her, as well.

The quills she uses to create her various articles come from porcupines.

“Friends bring me quills from road kill, but I also get carcasses from those who kill the animals if they have been causing damage,” she said.

This artistic passion of Blackhawk’s, who is a member of the White Earth Indian Reservation, came from her admiration of artist, Melvin Losh, from the Bena area.

Juanita Blackhawk is creating a wall hanging for a friend depicting flowers, arrows and a drum, made entirely of dyed porcupine quills on birch bark.

“One day, he came into the store I was working at near Federal Dam by Walker. I knew right away who he was and asked him if he would teach me how to do quill work,” she said. “When he turned around and started to walk out the door, I was almost in tears. But then, he turned again and said to be at his house at 8 a.m. the next day for a class he was starting.”

Blackhawk was there, with a pouch of tobacco and a native print as a gift.

“It’s our way,” she said.

Still needing finishing touches, the design of the top of a small box pictures a lady slipper made with porcupine quills on birch bark. Juanita Blackhawk has been teaching the art of quill work for about 20 years.

Losh taught her, and others, how to make quill boxes.

“He first had us sorting the quills by circumference size,” she said. It was not exactly what Blackhawk came to learn, but she knew she had to start at the beginning.

The students then cut round pieces of birch bark for the box. There were two pieces for the top and two for the bottom of each box. The students also cut two strips for the sides of the box and a slimmer strip to reinforce the bottom edges.

“Losh had us choose the designs we wanted to work with from patterns he had,” said Blackhawk. “Then came the actual quill work.”

Blackhawk said the art was similar to coloring. An outline of the picture was drawn on the birch bark and the quills filled it in.

To work with the quills, Blackhawk first soaks them in warm water.

“A perfect quill will bend double and when let go, return to its original shape,” she said.

Then, if wanted, the quills are dyed.

“Losh said he would tell me an ancient Indian secret on dying the quills. I thought he was going to have me creating my own dye from natural sources, but no. He told me to buy Rit dye from the store,” she said, laughing. But over the years, Blackhawk has learned that liquid Rit creates more vibrant colors than the powdered dye. At least on quills.

Blackhawk said not to follow the instructions on the box of Rit, but to boil water, add a pinch of salt and soak the quills on the lowest possible heat. She said some quills take longer than others and the darker the dye, the long-er it takes, with black taking the longest. Also, the longer the quills stay in the dye, the darker they get.

Melvin Losh did not charge her or the other students any money for his classes. His payment, he said, was that they pass the knowledge on to others.

Blackhawk began teaching others the art of quill work in 1994, at reservation schools and during different gatherings and conferences. She also teaches during the Anishinabe traditional camps, on the White Earth Reservation, three or four times a year. The sugar camp is held in the spring, the berry camp in the beginning of summer, the wild rice camp in the late summer and the story-telling camp in January.

She now makes quill boxes, pins and other jewelry, dance bags, small wall hangings and decorates Native American dance regalia.

Blackhawk mostly works on birch bark and deer hide, but has worked with some fabric.

The actual process is easy to understand, but needs precision to execute.

After the design is drawn on the piece of birch bark, a small migus (awl) pokes a hole just barely through the bark or hide where one end of the quill will be pulled through with tweezers to about 1/4 inch. Another hole is poked where the other end of the quill will go through. The quill is pulled so it barely lies on the bark, not taut. The ends on the back side are cut off to 1/4 inch with a cuticle scissors, the tool of Blackhawk’s choice.

That process continues until the design is filled in.

The second piece of bark or hide which was cut is used as backing to cover the cut quills. The two pieces are sewn together with sweet grasses, softened in water.

“I use a leather needle to work through the deer hides or birch bark when sewing the grasses,” Blackburn said. The grass is laid alongside the design and decoratively sewn to hold the two pieces together. The grasses are also used to sew a design to another background, such as onto a bag.

“A thimble is a necessary tool to protect my fingers when working with the leather and birch bark,” she said.

Blackhawk has shown her work at the casinos in Minnesota, the Ojibwe Art Expo at Bemidji State University and even the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., has one of her pieces. She said pieces of her work have found their way into private collections in Asia, Europe and South and North America.

“Each time I am out collecting supplies from nature, I leave behind a pinch of tobacco, a gift to the Creator,” Blackhawk said. “I give thanks for the trees, grasses, porcupines and deer.”

For more information about Blackhawk’s classes, contact her at (218) 255-1990.