March 2009 Artifact of the Month

Quill Box

ca. 1890

Mi’kmaq, Northeast Woodlands


Materials: porcupine quills, birch bark, natural dyes


This month’s featured artifact is a quill box made by a member of the Mi’kmaq Nation.

Before European contact, the Mi'kmaq people had mastered techniques that enabled them to make tools and equipment from a variety of resources from their environment. Resources included animal bone, ivory, teeth, claws, hair, feathers, fur, leather, quills, shells, clay, native copper, stone, wood, roots and bark.

After 1600, outside of utilitarian objects, Mi'kmaq women began making a variety of items solely for trade with Europeans.  One of the art forms for which they are most famous is porcupine quillwork on bark.  Quillwork was eagerly traded for cloth and iron goods, etc and somewhat lost its traditional role in Mi'kmaq society.  This delicate and elaborate art form utilizes hundreds of dyed quills.

Sharp quill ends were inserted into holes in wet bark which, when dry, contracted around them to hold the quills in place.  Bark ornamented like this established a bright “mosaic” which evolved into boxes and baskets of various sizes.

Designs used were often floral, honoring and reflecting the rich plant life of the eastern woodlands.  Common designs include five-petal flowers, plant and tree leaves and strawberry plants.  Geometric designs were also used and incorporated zigzags, triangles, diamonds, squares, stars, parallel stripes and checkerboards –all integrated into complex designs.

Famed for their quillwork, the Mi’kmaq people are sometimes also known as the Porcupine Indians.  

The Mi’kmaq communities are concentrated in the northeast United States (Massachusetts and Maine) and eastern Canada.  The Mi'kmaq were related to, and traditional allies of, the Abenaki, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet Indians with whom they formed the historic Wabanaki Confederacy of New England and the Maritimes.  Mi'kmaq (derived from the more grammatically correct Mi'kmaw), loosely translates to mean "my friends.”  Their original term for themselves was Lnu'k meaning “the people.”

There are approximately 40,000 Mi'kmaq people today.