They say that the time to gather Wiigwaas (Birch bark) is when the flies start biting. Gathering Birch bark in late June / early July is a long time tradition of Ojibwe people in the great lakes region.
Birch is one of the most important resources of the people; it was used for every day survival. Birch bark was essential for making wigwams (dwellings), making containers of all kinds, cooking, gathering water, making canoes, and in burials. The bark of the birch tree is versatile and beautiful. It is still essential to our people today; it is part of who we are.
Birch bark must be harvested properly and with great care and respect.
If it is harvested correctly, it can be gathered from the tree in a way that will not cause permanent damage to the tree. Birch trees are under stress due to disease, pests, and climate change. Now more than ever, we must be mindful of how we approach the Birch tree and collect its bark. We do not recommend harvesting Birch bark without help or direction from an experienced Birch bark collector. We believe that you should always offer tobacco before collecting Birch.
Not all Birch trees have bark that’s suitable for crafting.
Birch trees that are used for Birch bark harvesting should be at least 40 years old. An experienced harvester will be able to recognize the age of the tree by its girth. Birch trees that grow in lowland swamps are generally not suitable for Birch bark harvesting. The bark is thinner and not as easy to work with. Birch trees residing in hilly upland areas tend to have stronger, more resilient bark.
The bark of a suitable tree will look different than one that’s not good for harvest. The inside of the bark will have less lines, and the lines will be shorter and closer together. The bark with many longer lines that are farther apart, will crack easier.
To harvest the bark, the harvester will make a “T” cut and be able to feel when the knife hits the inner bark. The tree’s health depends on the integrity of the inner bark, so the harvester must be careful not to damage it. The inner bark must remain intact so the tree can protect itself from disease and pests.
(photos by Ivy Vainio)
There are ceremonies and offerings for the Birch tree before the bark is collected. I’ve been taught that you always give away the first basket you make. It is also important to note that birch bark scraps are never thrown into the trash. Scraps are typically used for crafts, jewelry, making fire, or they are respectfully returned to the woods.
At Native Harvest, our Birch bark items are harvested sustainably and crafted with care by White Earth community members. Birch bark baskets are a beautiful gift for almost any occasion, and can be filled with other Native Harvest items to create a unique, custom gift basket. Bring the beauty of White Earth home, and check out our selection of Birch bark baskets.
(Birch bark baskets by White Earth descendant Zac Earley)
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