31 August 2013

Biting the bark

My latest artists book acquisition is "Algonquin" by Chris Drury.
It describes seven days' canoeing in Algonquin Park, Canada, illustrated with photos of birch(?) bark - the words are from diary entries, the bark was collected and bitten into. The endnote makes the connection:

"The Algonquin group of languages is thought to be eleven thousand years old.

"It is spoken by tribes in an area which encompasses North Dakota through to Michigan and up through Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

"Around 2000 BC a written language evolved which had its beginnings as bite marks on bark."

The idea of a written language evolving through bite marks is intriguing but perhaps shouldn't be a surprise in the light of the various mark-making possibilities available to people, and how the marks changed (or not) when transferred to other material - eg, cuts in wood to cuts into stone. What's even more intriguing is why some groups needed or wanted to have a written language - the simplistic answer is the need to keep records of commercial transactions, or of laws. (I need to find out a bit more about this...)
Photo from here
Back, though, to the bitten bark. This is a traditional art of some First Nations groups - the Cree, for example. It was commonly used as a source of entertainment; the bitten patterns would light up when held in front of a campfire, depicting dreams and stories that were shared and passed on to newer generations.

While in - or rather, near - Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics, I saw an article about birch bark biting in the local newspaper which identified Pat Bruderer, a Cree from northern Manitoba, as one of the last remaining practitioners of the art. 

In this article her son makes the suggestion that this skill might have been used to create hunting and fishing maps in times past. The article also tells of the process, starting with collecting the bark, then peeling it till it's very thin (and fragile), folding it up to 16 times, using different teeth to make different marks, and then unfolding and smoothing it out. 

Another practitioner is Angelique Merasty, who died in 1996; more information on her technique is here. It took her 3-4 minutes to bite a picture, and she could make up to 50 a day, when the bark was fresh. She taught the technique not only to Pat Bruderer but to Angelique Merasty Levac
Angelique Merasty's personal style
(published in Canadian Woman Studies, Vol 10(2-3), [1989])

The bitings are called wigwas mamacenawejegan in Ojibwa, and are also known as "transparencies" or "chews". 

No comments: