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Birchbark biting: learning about this uncommon art form (that is exactly as it sounds) from Kelly Church

Sep 18, 2023 10:46AM ● By Content Editor
All photos by Laura Durenberger-Grunow, unless noted otherwise.

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - September 18, 2023

On Friday, September 15, 2023, Grand Portage National Monument hosted Kelly Church (Potawatomi, Odawa, and Ojibwe heritage from her dad, and English and Irish from her mom), an Indigenous Artist known throughout the US for her work in black ash basketmaking, painting, and birchbark biting - which is exactly as it sounds. 

Church was at the Grand Portage National Monument to teach a class on birchbark biting, followed by a talk at North House Folk School in Grand Marais on Saturday, September 16, 2023, on black ash trees and the emerald ash borer. 

 Kelly Church, Wikicommons

Kelly has been a huge advocate for black ash conservation, specifically on saving the species from the destructive invasive insect, the emerald ash borer, which according to the United States Department of Agriculture, is expected to take out 90% of ash trees around the country. 

Her art, conservation, activism, education, and storyteller work has been recognized nationally by the Smithsonian Institute, where she received a Native Scholars Fellowship in 2016, the National Endowment for the Arts in 2018 as a National Heritage Fellow, the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation as a National Artist Fellowship, and many others. She also has been included in a number of art exhibits around the US. 

Church learned how to make ash baskets from her father and cousin. She grows and harvests her own trees at her home in Michigan. The trees not only provide her with materials for her baskets, but she also collects bark for her birchbark biting pieces. 

Birchbark biting, or Mazinibaganjigan in Ojibwe, involves using one’s teeth (typically the eye teeth) in order to create designs on pieces of thin birchbark. These designs can be used for storytelling, to create patterns for quillwork or beadwork, and other art forms. 

The process is anything but simple for those just starting out. 

First, the artist needs to find the right birch bark, at the right time of the year. 

Church says that she knows it’s time to start looking when the strawberries are ready to harvest. The bark must be flaking off the tree. “It’s like it’s giving itself,” she said. It’s also best if you can harvest on a hot and humid day. 

One mistake she shared that she sees a lot of people make is that they’ll cut off a chunk of birchbark with a knife. 

“Knives are for skinning animals, not trees,” she warned. 

If you take the bark when it’s not ready, and try to cut it off, you can kill the tree. 

One piece of birchbark can contain up to 15-20 layers. For birchbark biting, you want pieces that are paper thin, in order to be able to fold the bark for different designs. This involves carefully peeling off different layers, until you have a piece that is curling up. Church shares that you can try and do different designs with pieces that are 2-3 layers thick, but it may be more difficult to achieve a design. 

 Church provided examples of thin birchbark, thick birchbark, and pieces where class attendees could learn and practice peeling individual layers 

The next step involves folding the birchbark, and then finding teeth that click together just right so you can actually bite down and create your art. 

“It’s about connecting the mind and teeth,” Kelly shared. 

This is especially important because you can’t see what you’re actually doing while you’re biting, so you must be able to visualize what you’re trying to create. Practice is especially important. 

First, Church started the class by making a butterfly. For this design, you had to fold a paper-thin piece of birchbark in half, and then create two large circles by biting down along the birchbark with teeth that you hope are clicking together just right. 

 My first attempt at birchbark biting - a butterfly. I quickly learned that it can be really tricky to discover which teeth to use

Attendees also made a dragonfly, a turtle, and a flower - learning different folding techniques. Thankfully, Kelly was prepared with lots of birchbark for those who needed a lot of practice (yes, that’s me). 

Church shared that there are no bad designs. If you have one that didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, you can simply call it a snowflake. 

 Most of my designs, while very well-intentioned to make the specific one Church was instructing us on, ended up as snowflakes

Overall, the class was really fun, and Kelly was a great teacher who was patient, passionate, and funny. It felt like such a treat to be able to learn an art form that isn’t widely known about from someone who is incredibly talented and is so knowledgeable about it. 

When you Google birchbark biting, sources online state that there are less than two dozen birchbark-biting artists left, due to the practice being erased due to colonization. 

When Church brought up that statistic during class, she laughed and said that she believed there were more because every one of us in the room was now a birchbark biter. 

While I appreciated the sentiment, let’s just say it took me a long time to find teeth that clicked together “just right”, and that I made a lot of snowflakes that day. 

To learn more about Kelly Church and her work, visit her website here: