Modification of records: A case study with moose hair embroidered birch bark boxes

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

by Vasanthi Pendakur and Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour

: A birch bark box lid embroidered with a First Nations man sitting in profile and smoking a pipe inside a central circle. Red, white, and blue flowers are embroidered on either side of the circle, and a playing card diamond is embroidered above and below the circle.

Birch bark box lid embroidered with diamonds playing cards suit symbol and a First Nations man smoking a pipe. (e010948522)

Birch bark boxes are extremely rare objects among the Library and Archives Canada collection. These boxes are three-dimensional and feature embroidered designs made with moose hair inserted through the pierced bark. The use of moose hair to decorate objects originated with First Nations before the arrival of the Europeans. The boxes in this set are similar to those created in convents by the Ursuline sisters of Québec and were probably made for sale to tourists in 18th-century Quebec. Boxes like these were popular souvenirs among the French elite and, later, the British military. These particular boxes were acquired by a military officer stationed in Niagara during the American War of Independence. According to the descriptive record, the boxes date from 1780–1800 and were collected by Henry Powell (died 1815), of the 53rd Regiment of Foot.

One side of birch bark box embroidered with red flowers on a green vine. The edges are bordered in white.

One side of a birch bark box. (e010948522_s6)

Upon review of the descriptive record and viewing the object in the collection, additional information would lead to the modification of the record to reflect the new information.

When creating a record for an archival item, a quality control officer uploads the information into the catalogue and ensures it is accurate, often working to confirm details with the archivist responsible for the particular holding. In this instance, the archivist confirmed the exact materials used to construct and decorate the box: birch bark and moose hair.

A slightly faded birch bark box lid embroidered with a First Nations figure sitting in profile and smoking a pipe inside a central circle. Red, white, and blue flowers are embroidered on either side of the circle, and a playing card spade is embroidered above and below the circle.

Birch bark box lid embroidered with a spade playing card suit symbol and a First Nations man smoking a pipe. (e010948521)

A birch bark box lid embroidered with a First Nations woman in profile inside a central circle, a child in cradleboard on her back. Red, white, and blue flowers are embroidered on either side of the circle, and a playing card club is embroidered above and below the circle.

Birch bark box lid embroidered with a clubs playing card suit symbol featuring a First Nations woman standing in profile, a child in cradleboard on her back. (e010948523)

The boxes in this set are identical in size, and all are made of birch bark and embroidered in moose hair. Though at first glance the embroidered designs look similar, each box features a unique pattern based on one of the playing card suits—hearts, diamonds, clubs or spades. Each box lid has two hearts, diamonds, spades or clubs embroidered on it. As well, each lid features a First Nations figure in profile inside a central circle: two lids feature men smoking pipes; one lid is of a man holding a bow and arrow; and a fourth lid is of a woman with a child in a cradleboard on her back. On each side of the circles are embroidered floral patterns of colourful blossoms, leaves and stems. The edges are trimmed with secured lengths of moose hair.

A birch bark box lid embroidered with a First Nations figure with bow and arrow standing in profile inside a central circle. Red, white, and blue flowers are embroidered on either side of the circle, and a playing card heart is embroidered above and below the circle.

Birch bark box lid embroidered with a hearts playing card suit symbol featuring a First Nations man with bow and arrow standing in profile. (e010948520)

While researching this embroidery style, we discovered that a moose hair embroidered birch bark tray in the collections of the McCord Museum had the following description:

“In 1714, Mother St-Joseph, a [sic] Ursuline from Trois-Rivières, taught the art of embroidery on birch bark. Another Ursuline nun also made a major contribution: Mother Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (Anne Du Bos), who was born in Sillery in 1678, to a Huron-Wendat mother and a French father. According to her 1734 obituary, she devoted the final years of her life to teaching embroidery, in particular, embroidery with moose hair, which by 1720, was widely recognized as a refined and elegant form of needlework.”

The boxes in the LAC collection appear to be of a similar style.

Even after European supplies became more readily available, local materials continued to be used for the souvenir appeal. Both First Nations and nuns likely made these types of boxes for the tourism industry, hence the confusion over who ultimately might have made this set.

In the descriptive record, the archivist did note that the provenance of the set of boxes was not clear. Given that the style of these boxes was widespread, it is uncertain whether nuns, First Nations girls, or French women made the boxes. In the end, the description was revised to reflect the uncertainty as to the identity of those who created them. This was my introduction to how records can be improved and made more accessible through updated research. This example only scratches the surface of revising historic descriptions. Archivists are re-visiting descriptions created in the past to make them more accurate, but still have plenty of work ahead of them.  

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Vasanthi Pendakur is a former project manager with the Exhibitions and Online Content Division. She was responsible for researching and publishing LAC’s Flickr albums. Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour is an Indigenous research archivist with the Exhibitions and Online Content Division. She is responsible for researching and publishing Indigenous content blogs and Flickr albums.

Images of Indigenous Pipes now on Flickr

Close up portrait of a man smoking a pipe, and wearing a flat cap and round glasses.

Portrait of an Inuit man, Angmarlik, a respected leader at Qikiqtat (Kekerten) (PA-166470)

Pipe smoking was practiced by both Indigenous men and women.

Woman smoking a pipe and wearing a dress, shawl, and headwrap. She is holding the reins of a horse pulling a Red River cart.

Camp scene of a Red River cart and an Indigenous woman (e011156555)

Pipe bowls were made from ceramics or carved from hard materials such as pipestone, soapstone, wood, or corncobs. The stem was usually made of a hollowed out tube of wood. Pipes were used recreationally to smoke tobacco, or blends of aromatic plants or barks. Pipes were also used on political and ceremonial occasions. Unique metal-forged axe pipes were gifted to Indigenous chiefs and leaders.

A birch bark basket embroidered in the centre with a First Nations figure smoking a pipe, and white, red, and blue flowers on each side.

Birch bark basket with embroidered First Nations figure and pipe (e010948522)

Pipe smoking has dwindled, but the practice and symbolism still carries on as some of these pictures show.

Portrait of a woman wearing a plaid shawl and smoking a pipe.

Inuit woman wearing plaid shawl and smoking a pipe (e010692540)

Visit the Flickr album now!


 

Join us in celebrating our 1,000th blog post!

The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Discover Blog has hit an important milestone! We have published 1,000 blog posts! For the past eight years, the blog has showcased our amazing documentary heritage collection, let researchers know what we are working on, and answered frequently asked questions.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, we are looking back at some of our most popular blog posts.

1940 National Registration File

A typed, two-column questionnaire titled “Dominion of Canada—National Registration Card for Women” with “For Information Only” written diagonally across the middle.

Sample of a questionnaire for women, courtesy of Statistics Canada.

Year after year, this early blog post has consistently been at the top of our list of views and comments. It is not surprising that a genealogy themed post took the top place; what is surprising is that the 1940 National Registration File is not held at LAC, but can be found at Statistics Canada. Either way, it is a great resource and very useful to genealogists across the country.

Want to read more blog posts about genealogy at LAC? Try the post, Top three genealogy questions.

Do you have Aboriginal ancestry? The census might tell you

A woman and a man sit in the grass with their two young children in front of a canvas tent.

Aboriginal man and woman [Alfred and Therese Billette] seated on the grass with two children [Rose and Gordon] outside their tent (e010999168).

Another popular post is the 2016 blog explaining how Canadian censuses could help you examine your past and research your unknown ancestral lineage to Indigenous heritage. Canadians might search for their Indigenous heritage to resolve questions of self-identity, or to know if they may participate with Indigenous organizations, or get Indigenous benefits.

Want to read more blog posts on how to research your Indigenous heritage? Try one of these posts, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development records: Estate files or The Inuit: Disc numbers and Project Surname.

The Grey Fox: Legendary train robber and prison escapee Bill Miner

Poster showing a photograph of Bill Miner, announcing a $500 reward for his recapture, listing details as to his escape, and describing his physical characteristics.

Reward notice for the recapture of Bill Miner that was sent to police departments, publications and private detective agencies (e011201060-210-v8).

This exciting post tells the story of Bill Miner, who was nicknamed “The Grey Fox” and “The Gentleman Bandit.” Bill Miner was a legendary criminal on both sides of the Canada–U.S. border. Although he committed dozens of robberies and escaped from multiple prisons, many saw him as a generous folk hero who targeted exploitative corporations only. LAC holds many documents, publications, sound and video recordings, and other materials relating to Miner, and hundreds of these documents are now available on our website as a Co-Lab crowdsourcing challenge.

Want to learn more about records from the B.C. Penitentiary system? Try the post, British Columbia Penitentiary’s Goose Island: Help is 20 km away, or 9 to 17 hours as the pigeon flies.

Samuel de Champlain’s General Maps of New France

: A black-and-white hand-drawn map depicting Quebec, the Maritime provinces and the eastern part of Ontario in 1613.

Carte geographique de la Nouelle Franse en son vray meridiein Faictte par le Sr. Champlain, Cappine. por le Roy en la marine—1613 (in french only) (e010764734).

This popular 2013 post combines two aspects of Canadian interest: cartography and explorers! This article gives an overview of Champlain’s maps of New France held in the LAC collection. Also included in the post is a “suggested reading list” so researchers can learn more about Champlain’s cartography and travels.

Want to read more about the history of New France? Try the post, Jean Talon, Intendant of New France, 1665-1672.

Journey to Red River 1821—Peter Rindisbacher

Painting depicting travellers walking single file while portaging their boats overland to avoid a waterfall.

Extremely wearisome journeys at the portages [1821] (e008299434).

This popular blog post describes the work of Peter Rindisbacher. Rindisbacher was 15 years old when he immigrated to Selkirk’s Red River settlement in 1821. Already an accomplished artist when he arrived in North America, he produced a series of watercolours documenting the voyage to Rupert’s Land and life in the settlement. His watercolours from the Red River area are among the earliest images of western Canada. Rindisbacher is considered the first pioneer artist of the Canadian and the American West.

Want to learn more about Peter Rindisbacher? Try the podcast, Peter Rindisbacher: Beauty by commission.

The Persons Case

Five women in gowns wearing corsages and one man in a tuxedo standing in front of a plaque.

Unveiling of a plaque commemorating the five Alberta women whose efforts resulted in the Persons Case, which established the rights of women to hold public office in Canada (c054523).

This blog post illuminates the history of women’s fight for political equality in Canada. The Persons Case, a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate, began in 1916 when Emily F. Murphy was appointed as the first female police magistrate in the British Empire. Undermining her authority, lawyers challenged her position as illegal on the grounds that a woman was not considered to be a person under the British North America Act, and therefore she was unable to act as magistrate. Murphy enlisted the help of Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney, and Irene Marryat Parlby—now known as the “Famous Five”—who were engaged politically and championed equal rights for women.

Want to learn more about women’s rights throughout Canada’s history? Try the post, A greater sisterhood: the women’s rights struggle in Canada.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force Digitization Project is Complete!

A page from the service file of “Scotty” Davidson describing how he was killed in action in the field by a shell falling in the trench, and how he is buried in a grave with three other 2nd Battalion men.

A page from Allan “Scotty” Davidson’s digitized service file describes how he was killed in action (CEF 280738).

The last post on our list is an impressive one! The blog announcing the completion of LAC’s 5-year project to digitize all 622,290 files of soldiers who enlisted in the First World War was well-received by many researchers.

Want to learn more about how the Canadian Expeditionary Force digitization project started? Try the post, Current status of the digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel service files.

We hope you enjoyed our trip down memory lane. You may also be interested in blogs about Canada’s zombie army, the Polysar plant, LAC’s music collection, historical French measurement standards, or the iconic posters from the Empire Marketing Board.