Various ways corn is used
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.
Birch and its precious bark
If there is one tree whose bark has been used for many different purposes – canoes, baskets, decoys and so on – it is the 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 different kinds of bark canoes reflect the diversity of the First Nations. The Cree canoe is crooked, while the Micmac canoe often has a large midsection. Algonquin and Atikamekw 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. 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.
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.
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.