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Corn (Zea mays) has many uses
Photo: Danielle Sheree
Zea mays
  • Zea mays
  • Betula papyrifera
  • Anthoxanthum odoratum
  • Fagus grandifolia
  • Beaver tail snowshoes of Mistassini manufacture (Lake Mistassini 1944)
  • Geographical distribution of Aboriginal Nations in Quebec
  • Historic site of the fur trade, Lachine

Under a veil of corn

Under a veil of leaves lies the ear of the corn, essential to the lives of the Iroquoians. The Huron-Wendat and Mohawk always had many uses for corn, as far back as memory goes. They used both the kernels and the plant: empty stalks were converted into fishing floats; leaves and husks were made into dolls, masks, mats, moccasins and baskets; and kernels were transformed into bread that was cooked in the ashes of a fire, or used to make a very elaborate corn stew known as hominy or sagamité.

The scaly leaves of the corn husk were coiled, braided or sewn, depending on the end product. For dolls, the leaves were folded, assembled and then partially braided. Corn silks were used to make the doll's hair. In some cases the dolls were dressed as women or warriors.

Unleavened bread cooked in ashes was made of corn flour, obtained from grains that were dried and then grilled or boiled before being crushed and screened. The flour was kneaded with water, and beans or small fruit were added in some cases. If not protected by a corn husk during baking, the loaf had to be rinsed before it was eaten.

All in bark

If there is one tree whose bark has been used for many different purposes ­ – canoes, baskets, decoys and so on – ­ it is the gracious, white-skinned, many-layered birch (Betula papyrifera). Its bark, which is brown on young trees and perfectly white on mature trees, is gathered preferably in the winter, spring or fall, when its highly resistant inner layers can also come off with the outer bark. The whole bark can then be scraped to produce designs.

The different kinds of bark canoes reflect the diversity of the First Nations. The Cree canoe is crooked, while the Micmac canoe has often a large midsection. Algonquin and Attikamek canoes have pointed or square ends, and Malecite canoes are heavily decorated.

Birchbark is lashed with spruce roots to make baskets and decoys, decorated with animal, plant or geometric designs. The designs are often emblematic; for example, a fat beaver is a sign of abundance and prosperity. Birch wood, too, is widely used. It is a favourite material for snowshoe frames, and also serves to make paddles, tools and some table accessories, including tableware articles.

Arts and crafts

Fruit, flowers, grasses and willows need only the dexterity, imagination and diligence of Aboriginal artists and craftswomen to be transformed into all kinds of articles. Vanilla grass for the Abenaki, willow for the Micmac and American dune grass for the Inuit are all braided or woven to make baskets in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Iris and pitcher plant for the Attikamek, the daisy and balsam fir for the Huron-Wendat; all seem to be tailor-made as decorations for baskets or even clothes, thanks to embroidery and bead-weaving.

An Abenaki legend...

In the beginning, there were only plants and animals on the Earth. The Great Spirit, satisfied but bored, also wanted humans to live there, and he sculpted them from a large straight ash, or mkazawi maahlakws. It was thus that the People of the East were born, and their origin explains the Abenaki people's special relationship with the ash.

Wood Working

Baskets made of ash strips, wooden lacrosse sticks, beech bowls, maple ladles: all these items are threads from the same skein, namely the Aboriginal knowledge and know-how accumulated over the generations.

The Micmac, Abenaki, Mohawk and Huron-Wendat use ash wood to make strips, by beating a pre-cut piece of wood with the back of an axe. The strips are then softened before being braided into baskets in a variety of shapes and sizes, with chequerboard, diagonal, star-shaped or other patterns. The Mohawk, Cree and other Nations use maple and birch wood to make a large number of curved objects. The original piece of wood is trimmed down using a chain saw and an axe, then worked with a knife. It can be softened with steam or hot water, and fixed in a mould. Ladles, rattles and snow shovels are sometimes sculpted with effigies. The Iroquoian use elm wood to make a corn mortar. They hollow out the upper part of a trunk by means of charring.

Works of art in their own right, all the objects neatly made by aboriginal people bear witness to the ingenuity and manual dexterity of the artists and craftspeople who still work with wood even today.

The rhythm of the crooked knife

Known as mukutakan in the Innu language and muuhkutaakan or muuhkutaakin in Cree, the famous Indian "crooked knife" has long demonstrated its value and potential. An all-purpose knife, it used to be equipped with a beaver incisor, but is now made of a curved flat metal blade inserted into a curved handle. Used with a rotating movement, always towards the handler, it can trim, smooth, round off and even polish and sculpt wood.

When worked with the crooked knife, wood from the balsam fir, white spruce and cedar is quickly transformed into the ribs and sheathing needed to make canoes. Birch and tamarack quickly take on the thickness and shape required to form the frames and crossbars of snowshoes. Spruce and birch become sleds and toboggans, while cedar and other species make excellent cradleboards, or tikinagan.

The Inuit equivalents of the crooked knife are the ulu, used exclusively by women to work skins, and the other knives and drills used by the men to shape objects that were once vital to their survival, including harpoons, sleds, and kayak frames in wood, bone or antler.

Aboriginal people in Québec

Eleven Aboriginal nations live in Québec. They number nearly 75,000 inhabitants, divided between 55 communities in full cultural, political and economic expansion. Nine different Aboriginal languages are still spoken in Québec. There are also many Aboriginal enterprises, mainly in the tourist, forestry, fishing and arts sectors. Native cultures live on through both tradition and modernity.

Geographical distribution

The Inuit, to the north, live in 14 villages scattered along the coast of Nunavik, a vast expanse of tundra. The villages are run in a similar way to Québec's municipalities.

The conifer forest is home to the Naskapi, Cree, Innu, Algonquin and Attikamek, all members of the Algonquian family, with closely related cultures and languages. Their 31 communities are organized in reserves and settlements, and each community has its own Band Council, composed of a chief and several councillors.

To the south, in the deciduous forest along the St. Lawrence Valley, the Micmac, Malecite and Abenaki, who are also members of the Algonquian family, rub shoulders with the Huron-Wendat and Mohawk, both members of the Iroquoian family. They live in 10 reserves. The 4 Iroquoian reserves are located close to the major centres of Montréal and Québec City.

Free trade

The Aboriginal people have always traded goods, held commercial assemblies and governed transactions. The different environments in which they lived led them to develop fairly specialized economies: skins, furs and birchbark in the north, and corn, beans, squash and tobacco in the south, in the more temperate deciduous forest region.

Trading sites such as Tadoussac have existed since time immemorial. In the 16th Century, the Innu and Malecite travelled to Tadoussac, where skins and furs for clothing were traded for foodstuffs from the south, and shell beads for decoration. Futher down south, the Huron-Wendat traded with the Algonquin, exchanging corn, tobacco and fishing nets for furs and dried fish. Alliances were formed, kinships were brought into play, and the atmosphere was one of festivity, ceremony and conviviality. Major political confederations promoted trade, including the Huron Confederacy, the League of the Iroquois uniting the Mohawk to other Iroquoian nations, and the Wabanaki Confederacy, which brought together the Micmac and Malecite with other Algonquian nations.

Today, trade still flourishes among the First Nations. The trading partners may have changed, and a money of exchange may have been added, but the spirit has remained the same. Ash baskets, skin moccasins and Inuit stone sculptures are still produced locally and are easily traded.

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