Birch header.

How Indians Used the Birch.

Written by M. A. Welsh.




The first European explorers to reach North America found the native Indians using many plants, one of which was the birch, (Betula papyrUi'm Marsh.) known variously as White Birch, Paper Birch and Canoe Birch. Its range was wide, covering every Canadian province, the northern United States and Alaska. It provided the Indians in these areas with many of their needs, particularly food, shelter and warmth.


Birch Trees.
White Birch Trees in summer.

The principal part of the birch used for food was the sap, collected in the spring and either drunk as it came from the tree or boiled down to form a syrup. This practice was widespread, especially in those areas which were outside the range of the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.).

This past summer Solomon Mirasty, a Cree Indian of Pelican Narrows, Saskatchewan, related to me the method his grandmother employed in tapping the tree for sap. Two cuts were made through the bark in the form of an inverted V, with no cut across the bottom.

The flap of bark thus formed was then drawn downward and formed into a trough through which the sap was directed to a birch-bark container placed beneath it.


Indian Lady tapping a Birch tree for sap.
Indian Lady tapping a Birch tree for sap using birch bark baskets.

The collected sap was boiled down for about 24 hours until it formed a thick, black syrup which could be stored until needed, and was used as a sauce for fish and meat. Mrs. Nancy Ross, a Cree Indian of La Ronge, Saskatchewan, has provided similar information, although she was not aware of the mechanics of tapping the trees. She stated that the syrup was used as a sauce for fish and bannock.

Alfred Montegrand, a Chipewyan Metis formerly of La Loche, also reports the use of birch syrup on fish and other foods. At Buffalo Narrows, I have seen grove of birch trees with old tapping scars on them. In addition to the sap, the cambium layer of the stem just under the bark was scraped off and eaten by Cree Indians.

Bradford Angier recommends this as an emergency food which he states is pleasantly sweet and sustaining. He also reports that the twigs, young leaves and sapwood, when steeped in hot water, make an excellent beverage, with the aroma and flavor of wintergreen.

Many Indians made the bark into rolls for covering their dwellings. The trees, stripped for this purpose then died and dried out rapidly, providing a good source of fuel the following year for heating and cooking.

Birch bark has been a traditional tinder for starting fires throughout the forested area and the entire tree can be used for fuel while it is green. It is one of the few woods that will burn without seasoning; it burns slowly and holds a fire for many hours, an advantage when heat is required all night for warmth.


Birch Tents.
Birch tents on the west bank of the Red River. Near the middle settlement.

Birch Tree.
White Birch. Photo. - Fred Lahrman - Blue Jay magazine.

Birch Tree.
Birchbark canoe and Chipewyan Indian children. La Loche, Sask. June 28, 1943.
Photo. - Fred Bard - Blued Jay Magazine.

All Indians living in the range of the birch made baskets from the bark, some being simple folded containers, others elaborately sewn, with the seams sealed with pitch to make watertight containers for transporting and even boiling fluids over a fire.

Some baskets were decorated with applique cutout patterns or with incised or scraped designs. These were usually sewn with dyed roots, most often those of the Black Spruce (Picea marialia (Mill.), although other species of spruce and pine have been used. Decoration with porcupine quills, either in their natural colour or dyed with various vegetable dyes, was common, although as a rule restricted to small, fancy containers.


Indian Lady tapping a Birch tree for sap.
Another Indian Lady tapping a Birch tree for sap using birch bark baskets.

A single layer of birch bark is often folded into quarters and a series of indentations made along the edges with the teeth. When unfolded, a symmetrical design appears. These designs are produced both for amusement and to make patterns for bead work and other fancy work. It is not a dead art; there are still people who bite designs, at least at Amisk Lake, Saskatchewan.

Jenness, discussing Canada's debt to the Indians, lists the birchbark canoe as one of the great gifts. This frail craft carried trade goods and fur throughout Canada. Without it, our early explorers would have been hard put to have traversed the country at all, and certainly not with the speed and relative ease with which they did. It was light and made entirely of materials found in the forest. When damaged, repair materials were available there also.

Today's canoes follow the same shape as those made of birch bark, but the covering is of canvas and the planks and ribs joined with copper nails.

In our area, there are still craftsmen who can make birchbark canoes. There are so many good descriptions of the methods of making these canoes that it is unnecessary to describe the process here.

Hoffman reports that the records of the Midewinin as given by Minabozho were kept on birch bark. Record keeping on birch bark may be unique to the Ojibwa, but Wintemberg reported graphic representations of the Thunderbird on birch bark by Dakota, Ojibwa, Plains Cree and Menomini Indians."

Many Indians wrapped their dead in birch bark before burial. In October, 1967, I examined and photographed two Indian burials at Cumberland House, Saskatchewan. These corpses had been wrapped in birch bark. A partially excavated burial in the archaeological laboratory in Saskatchewan shows evidence of birchbark wrapping.

Mr. Harry Moody of Denare Beach reports that bodies unearthed near Pelican Narrows were wrapped in birch bark.

Gilmore reports that in the Missouri River Region finely-shredded birch bark was bound tightly in bundles and used as torches.

The inner bark of the birch produced a brownish dye that required no mordant and gives a light brown colour to wool.

Many tribes used the birch for medicine. The Ojibwa and Forest Potawatomi used the roots and twigs to obtain an aromatic oil for flavouring to mask unpleasant tastes in medicines.

The Seneca and Abenaki Indians used it in medicine to expel gas from the stomach.

The Chippewa cured stomach aches with it," and the Cree used the wood with other materials to cure gonorrhea.

A Cree-Metis of Buffalo Narrows described the procedure. Chips from the south side of Black Poplar (Populus tacamaltacea Mill.), White Poplar or Aspen (Popu!us tremuloides Michx.) and birch, in equal quantities are bundled together with five stems of horsetail (Equisitum Sp.) and boiled three times in three successive waters in a lard pail.

The entire quantity of each water is consumed. This treatment is said to cure gonorrhea in 5 days.

In formal medicine, tar extracted from birch bark has been used to treat skin conditions, the inner bark to reduce fevers, and the leaves to treat gout, rheumatism and dropsy.

Spore tubes or a fungus (Fonie finnentaris (Fr.) which grows on birch trees were burned slowly on a patient's joints to treat rheumatism by the Cree and Maliscet Indians. This material was also used as tinder in fire making.


Fungus growing on Birch tree.
Chaga fungus growing on a birch tree.

To the Chippewa the birch is sacred, first because of its many uses and second because of the legend concerning Winebojo. After he had killed the young of the Thunderbirds, Wineboji fled and found safe refuge in a hollow birch log.

After the Thunderbirds left he came out of the log and declared that henceforth this tree would be a benefit to the human race. As a result, the tree is never struck by lightning and the bark is the last part of the tree to decay. The short marks on the bark were made by Winebojo but the "pictures" on the bark are pictures of little thunderbirds.

It is doubtful if any other plant has been used by more people for more purposes than the birch. It has been a part of the culture of all the people who lived within its range.




Sources

ANGIER, Bradford. 1956. Food from the flora. The Beaver Magazine - Autumn, 1956 (p. 25).

BROWNLOW, C. V. 1941. Guild's dictionary, 5th edition. (p. 200).

DENSMORE, Frances. 1927. Uses of plants by the Chippewa Indians.

Bureau of American Ethnology, 33rd. Ann. Rep. (p. 390 and 288).

GILMORE, M. R. Uses of plants by the Indians the Missouri River region. Bureau of American Ethnology, 33rd. Ann. Rep. (p.75)

HARRINGTON, Richard. 1963. Bite a birch-bark pattern. Can. Geog. Jour. 66:130-131.

HOFFMAN, W. J. 1891. The Medewinin or, Grand Medicine Society of the American Bureau of Ethnology. 7th Ann. Rep. (p. 99).

JENNESS, Diamond. 1929. Notes about the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland. Nat. Museum Canada. - Ann. Rep. 1927. (p. 36).

JENNESS, Diamond. 1929. The Ojibwa Indians of Parry Island. Nat. Museum Canada, Rut. 78. (p. 57).

JENNESS, Diamond. 1962. Canada's debt to the Indians. Can. Geog. Jour. 65:115.

LEE-WHITING, B. B. 1966. Daniel Sarazin still makes birch-bark canoes. Can. Geog. Jour. 72:124.

MATSON, Jessie. 1934. Indian vegetable dyes. Part I. Denver Art Museum. (p. 51).


Credits

This wepage was created from an article published in the December, 1973 Issue of the Blue Jay Magazine.

Blue Jay magazine cover.
Credit: Blue Jay Magazine Cover
December, 1973.

Any material printed for the first time in the Blue Jay Magazine may be reproduced without permission. Credit lines will be appreciated.

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