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Mi’kmaw quillwork podcast delves into issues of Indigenous identity | CBC News

Kay Sark is out on her back deck on Lennox Island First Nation in Prince Edward Island, sporting one yellow rubber glove. 

But the Mi’kmaw woman isn’t wearing the glove to clean, she’s wearing it to handle what’s in the cardboard box next to her: a dead porcupine. 

Sark reaches into the box and pulls clumps of quills off the porcupine, dropping them into a plastic container. 

“I feel like it’s like picking grass,” she said, as the quills detach with a soft squelching sound.

Sark removes quills from a porcupine that was hit by a car to use in her quill art. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

This act of dequilling a porcupine is one of the first steps in the long process of creating traditional Mi’kmaw quill art. Sark also harvests materials such as birch bark and sweetgrass. The quills are dyed vibrant colours and threaded through holes in the bark to create intricate patterns, while the sweetgrass is often woven around the edge of a finished piece.

Sark and her friend, Cheryl Simon, co-host the podcast Epekwitk Quill Sisters, which launched in May 2021 and details what it takes to create their art, the same way generations of Mi’kmaq did before them.

WATCH | How two Mi’kmaw women use podcast to explain traditional quillwork:

Two Mi’kmaw women share how they make traditional quillwork on new podcast

Cheryl Simon and Kay Sark from P.E.I. create intricate pieces of art made from porcupine quills, drawing on traditional Mi’kmaw knowledge. They explain how they do it in their podcast, Epekwitk Quill Sisters. 3:59

Honouring the porcupine 

Sark first learned how to create quill art five years ago, during an apprenticeship program Simon taught at Lennox Island, located just off Prince Edward Island’s north shore. 

Part of what makes the podcast so appealing is their dynamic, which is like listening to a chat between sisters or good friends. 

I absolutely love it because it keeps me out harvesting. I’m out exercising my rights … it’s the epitome of being Mi’kmaq when I’m doing my quillwork.– Cheryl Simon

They also offer listeners fascinating details about how these beautiful quill pieces are made, including the fact that Mi’kmaq living on Epekwitk, what they call P.E.I., don’t have ready access to porcupine quills because the animals don’t live on the Island.  

“So Cheryl messaged me on her way here this morning,” said Sark. “She’s like, ‘I got you a present!’ I was like, ‘Is it roadkill?’ “

A piece of Mi’kmaw quillwork created by Sark. (Submitted by Kay Sark)

Quill artists don’t want to hunt or harm porcupines, and since so many are hit by cars, collecting roadkill is easier.

Simon, who is originally from the Scotchfort reserve in central P.E.I., but now lives in Dartmouth, N.S., picked up this particular porcupine along a New Brunswick highway on her way to P.E.I. 

“That way, you know, it’s not going to waste,” she said. “And we can honour the porcupine by making something beautiful with its quills.”

Simon holds one of her quillwork pieces. The porcupine quills are dyed, then poked into birch bark and arranged in an intricate pattern. (Submitted by Cheryl Simon)

Connecting to culture

For Sark, dequilling a porcupine has become second nature — “I’m just chilling out here with my roadkill.” — and sometimes people will stop to ask her questions.

“I have no problem being like, ‘This is what I’m doing, this is how I do it.’ ” That ease explaining her culture didn’t always come naturally. 

“I’ve found my identity through quilling. I was not connected to my culture — to really anything — until I started to quill,” she said. 

“I got out into the woods and I was connecting with nature and with animals. Then it was there.” 

Sark shows her son, Riley, how to harvest birch bark without harming the tree. The bark is used as the canvas for quillwork. (Submitted by Kay Sark)

Simon also began connecting more to her Mi’kmaw culture as an adult. In her twenties, she spent two years figuring out how to quill on her own, learning from elders and others. 

“This was the first thing that I did that really just flowed through me,” she said. 

“It was such an expression of who I am. And it ties together my connection with the land. I absolutely love it because it keeps me out harvesting. I’m out exercising my rights … it’s the epitome of being Mi’kmaq when I’m doing my quillwork.” 

The next generation of quill artists

Both women say passing the tradition to their children is an important aspect of their art. 

“Quilling, it involves my whole family now,” said Sark, referring to how her partner and two children join her in harvesting the materials.

“It’s normal for them to … see bark and quills and Mom outside dequilling a porcupine.”

Sark holds washed and dried porcupine quills that are ready to be dyed and used in her art. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

On one podcast episode, their four children discuss quillwork. Both women have been to their kids’ classrooms to teach quilling, and their kids have taught their classmates as well. 

Sark and Simon didn’t learn about quillwork from their own parents or grandparents, and Simon gets choked up when she thinks about the generations of parents who couldn’t teach their children their culture.

Simon harvesting Mi’kmaw medicines while carrying her son on her back when he was a baby. She says her kids got used to being carried while she was bending over and picking medicines and harvesting. (Submitted by Cheryl Simon)

“There was a lot of times … where there was components of our culture that couldn’t be shared, that had to be actively hidden from people,” she said.

“So to be able to teach my children that — they only know the positive of their Mi’kmaw identity. And that is something that means more than I can express.”

Sark said it feels good to be able to teach her kids something she never learned at their age. 

“Who you are as a Mi’kmaq person — it’s OK to be that person. It’s not something you should hide.”

Simon quills an eight-point Mi’kmaw star onto birch bark. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

‘We’re really digging deeper’

With recent episodes touching on deep cultural issues, such as exercising their rights and the growth of their identity, the pair plan to continue interviewing guests from across the Mi’kmaw territory.

“We’re really digging deeper, but in a gentle way,” said Simon. “So people are able to come along on this journey that I think that we’ve both experienced with quillwork and not have to be vulnerable about it.”

She said she hopes podcast listeners can learn and grow without being “hit over the head in terms of how they’re learning their lessons.” 

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