Written by: Elizabeth Goldberg, Archaeological Survey of Alberta
Alberta archaeology, and field archaeology in general, places a lot of emphasis on stone tools. We divvy up projectile points into groups based on time, place and form. We source quarries for flaked tools to hypothesize past trade relationships and seasonal migrations; and we admire projectile points for their beauty and the technical skill it took to make them.
However, stone tools are only a very small part of the archaeological record— at well-preserved sites, artifacts made of plant and animal fibers make up the majority. These items are called perishable artifacts because they decay quickly, often long before any archaeologist stumbles upon them. Alberta’s climate is not conducive to the preservation of perishable artifacts, but their presence can be inferred through other means. We can look to ethnographic collections of items made by First Nations that were traded or sold to settlers, and we can look to the technologies many Indigenous people use to this day. One such technology that was, and still is, widely important across the Canadian Subarctic is birch bark basketry.
While we might never be sure just how long First Nations and their ancestors have been making birch bark baskets, this technology was present at the time of European contact, and is likely much older. Remains of birch bark containers from the Canadian Plateau in British Columbia date back to at least 450 BCE. The word for “birch” in Salish and Dene languages appears to have an even deeper antiquity, perhaps as old as 4000 BCE (Croft and Mathewes 2013). The persistence of sewn birch bark basketry and its dominance in the Subarctic over woven basketry is likely because birch bark produces natural waxes that make it both waterproof and resistant to rot. This makes birch bark the perfect material for storing food for long periods of time (Northwest Territories Arts 2019). Today, birch bark baskets are made and used for a variety of purposes across Canada, from berrying to food storage to souvenirs.
Not all birch trees produce bark suitable for basketry. The bark must be pliable and able to bend into the desired form without breaking. Once a tree with suitable bark has been identified, the outer bark is peeled away with a knife, and care is taken to avoid piercing the inner bark and killing the tree. After suitable bark has been harvested, and especially if the basket is being made for sale, the bark may be decorated using sewn quills and/or incised patterns made either with a knife or one’s own teeth. Following this, the bark is gently heated so that it can be folded into the desired shape without breaking. It is then stitched together with thread made from split spruce or willow roots. These split roots can also be used to lash a reinforcing ring or splint of spruce wood to the rim of the basket. The entire process would take a skilled craftsperson approximately 20.5 hours; beginners would take far longer (Acho Dene Native Crafts; National Park Service 2018; Northwest Territories Arts 2019; Young et al. 1991).
The baskets can come in many forms: from wide, shallow trays to the deep, lidded storage baskets shown above, as well as more simple scoops or ladles. Birch bark can also be sewn together into a canoe, with seams so tight as to be waterproof. It is an incredibly versatile and useful material put to a wide variety of purposes.
The predominant makers of birch bark basketry are women. As such, the low rate of preservation of birch bark basketry, along with other perishable artifacts, erases the labor and resourcefulness of women in the archaeological record and projects a falsehood that the past was a man’s world.
Birch bark basketry, as sparse as it may be in the Alberta archaeological record, is a widespread, important technology that has been used by First Nations for millennia. By keeping in mind that artifacts of stone and bone are only a small snapshot of past activity at a site, we open ourselves up to seeing a fuller picture of the past, and a greater appreciation for the ingenuity of the people—especially women—who came before us and who still live here today.
Acho Dene Native Crafts. https://www.adnc.ca. Webpage accessed October 2019.
Croft, Shannon and Rolf W. Mathewes. 2013. Barking up the Right Tree: Understanding Birch Bark Artifacts from the Canadian Plateau, British Columbia. BC Studies 180:83-122.
National Park Service. 2018. “The Dena’ina Way of Making a Birch Bark Basket”. https://www.nps.gov/lacl/learn/historyculture/birchbarkbaskets.htm. Webpage accessed October 2019.
Northwest Territories Arts. 2019. “Each Quill on Birchbark Tells a Story.” https://www.nwtarts.com/each-quill-birchbark-tells-story Webpage accessed October 2019.
Young, David, Gertrude Nicks, Ruth McConnell, and Linda Suss. 1991. Birchbark Industry and Brain Tanning in the Central Canadian Subarctic. Arctic Anthropology 28(1):110-123.