Birch bark biting can be used to make quillwork | Image source: Mary Annette Pember
“I see the design through my eye teeth,” said Denise Lajimodiere, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe.
“I keep my eyes closed when I work because I see the design in the darkness,” said Lajimodiere of her work in birch bark biting or mazinibakajige, which means “marks upon the bark.”
She carefully separated the layers of bark, almost holding her breath as she peeled the delicate onion-skin-like layers so they don’t tear. She folded a layer of bark into a triangle and began to bite a design with her eyeteeth. Biting quickly, sounding a chipmunk chewing through wood, she creates elaborate flowers, dragonflies and turtles.
She held the finished work up to a lamp so the design could shine through. Lajimodiere, an assistant professor at North Dakota State University School of Education as well as a poet, sells her designs as earrings, wall hangings and other forms.
Birch bark biting was a pre-contact method of creating designs for beading or quillwork according to Lajimodiere. “Mazinibakajige died out in my tribe until I began doing it about eight years ago,” she said.
“It’s very healing and requires a great deal of patience.” according to Lajimodiere. The bark is harvested in the spring and does no harm to the tree. “The tree heals itself right back up.”
Lajimodiere was recently selected for a six-month Minnesota Historical Society Native Artist-in-Residence. With the award funds she plans on visiting the National Museum of the American Indian NMAI’s Archive Center in Suitland, Maryland to see the ancient mazinibakajige held there.
Lajimodiere recently met a woman from the Micmac tribe in Maine who told her that many people still do birch bark biting there. Many other tribes do the art as well. “People did biting anywhere that birch trees grew,” she said.
She hopes to travel to Maine to meet other “biters” and hopefully inspire a conference or symposium that will begin a resurgence of the art.
The entire process of gathering and creating the patterns involves ceremony and is very spiritual and healing according to Lajimodiere. Her favorite pattern, the dragonfly, speaks to the spiritual nature of the art. “The dragonfly brings us healing and helps carry our ancestors spirits down to earth to watch over us,“ she said.
The art has a therapeutic element she thinks can benefit women who are struggling; her hope is to one day teach biting to those who need healing. “When our women were out working and picking berries, they would create bitings during breaks and have competitions on who could create the most complex pattern.
“I never make any pattern to begin my work, although the dragonflies and turtles take more concentration,” she said. “It’s just like a flower or snowflake, there are no mistakes in any of the bitings. They are all different and perfect.