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Mi'kmaq used porcupine quills to adorn clothes, baskets, furniture
We are going to revisit the porcupine (matues) and its colourful quills which have been used by many generations of Mi’kmaq artists to adorn clothes, baskets, furniture and other things.
The strong red (Mi’kmaq: mekwe’k) colour of these quill adornments was derived from a local weed called stiff marsh bedstraw, as discussed in last month's Biosphere column. Very intricate designs were made using striking reds and yellows (wataptek). How the quills were coloured yellow in earlier times is a fascinating story which involves a wonder drug called berberine and a common local plant with the charming name of canker root, alluding to its primary use.
Berberine, which has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, is a compound which belongs to a class of chemicals called alkaloids and is produced by several different plants. It is sold in powder form as a nutraceutical and is purported to lower blood sugar, help with weight loss, lower the risk of heart disease and aid in treating various other chronic disorders such as venereal disease and alcoholism.
To add to its impressive list of benefits, berberine is a bright yellow compound that is a very effective natural dye. It is the compound that colours the beautiful rhizomes (underground stems) of our common plant called goldthread and goldthread (wisowtaqji'jkl) is the plant that was used by early Mi’kmaq artists to turn porcupine quills a bright yellow.
The Mi’kmaq name wisowtaqji'jkl tells us a lot about the little yellow plant — wisow refers to the gold colour, taq refers to its placement on the ground, ji'j indicates small or tiny and the kl makes it plural.
The other common name for this miraculous plant is canker root because it has been used since early times by Mi’kmaq to treat ulcers of the mouth.
It is truly a multi-purpose medicine and Tom Johnson of Eskasoni tells me he used to pick wisowtaqji’jkl for his grandmother, the late Caroline Gould of Wekoqma'q. She used to make eye drops with it as well as combine it with bear fat (Muino'mi) to make a salve for skin problems.
The scientific name for goldthread describes its physical appearance. Coptis trifolia is derived from the Greek word kopto meaning to cut and the Latin trifolia meaning having three leaves.
So, look for a low-lying plant with leaves in triplets and bright yellow rhizomes and you will probably have found goldthread. It is common in some areas of the forests and boggy areas of the biosphere but not in areas that have been logged.
Johnson tells me that in the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere they find goldthread on sphagnum moss under the shade of spruce or fir stands. This little plant has a widespread distribution from the Carolinas to northern Labrador according to the plant's database maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture.
How do we know that this miraculous plant was the one used to dye porcupine quills in the time before commercial dyes?
In her book “Micmac Quillwork” (NS Museum, 1982), Ruth Holmes Whitehead summarized reports and stories from the 18th century missionaries who visited our island. Those gentlemen talked about goldthread producing a yellow dye. It turns out that goldthread was used by many Indigenous people all across Turtle Island (North America) to dye porcupine quills.
In a large scientific study, Christina Cole and Susan Heald visited five museums in Canada and the United States, analyzed samples of dyed porcupine quills from their collections and reported the results at the Textile Society of America Symposium in Nebraska in 2010.
Cole and Heald used sophisticated equipment to analyze compounds and determine what plants were originally used to dye the quills adorning garments from as far back as 1790 in an area called the Eastern Woodlands of North America.
Using tracers from native plants, they determined the majority of yellow quillwork in their samples was accomplished using goldthread. They were also able to trace the presence of some other compounds on the dyed quills.
Interestingly, they found that early quill artists used bark teas from native trees to augment the dye colours and to aid in the attachment of the dye particles to the quills. In modern terms, the compounds in the bark teas were mordants, a term derived from the Latin meaning to bite. The bark trees identified in their study included maple (jioqsmusi), a common tree in our biosphere. These modern scientists also found the presence of many different compounds in some quills. Those early quill artists employed quite a sophisticated technology, using practical chemistry to get the palette of rich, natural shades which have stood the test of time.
If you are strolling through the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere, take your camera and record this wondrous plant in its natural habitat. Then upload your photos to I Naturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/), a web-based platform which is very easy to use.
Dr. Annamarie Hatcher is a consulting ecologist, a board member of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association and a natural dyer. Information was largely obtained from Tom Johnson of Eskasoni (a member of the BLBRA board), the Nova Scotia museum book “Micmac Quillwork” by Ruth Holmes Whitehead and Cole, C. & Heald, S., 2011, The History and Analysis of Pre-Aniline Native American Quillwork Dyes, Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. For more information about the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association, visit http://blbra.ca/ or our Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/blbra/).