The Ceremony

Posted on January 21, 2012


BIRCH BARK      Wiigwaasi

Among the forests inhabited by the Native Peoples grew one species of tree that played an important and continuing role in their daily lives. The bark is used for lodges, canoes, storage boxes for corn and maple sugar, cooking pots, torches and a host of other things. The Anisinaabeg gathered the bark from the time the leaves of the birch unfolded until the end of July.

Allequash Birch


This is a place of birches. The Hungry Winter is over. The Anisinaabeg have come here for the sacrifice. The have guided their canoes through rapids roaring the frenzy of Spring to reach this quiet, holy grove.

Many of the trunks are so thick that two men could not join hands around them. The sap flows late in the big trees. Now, when the moon of flowers has slimmed to a narrow curve, the bark will peel in broad, heavy sheets needed for canoes. It is time for the annual ceremony that again connects humans to trees. The Wiigwaasimitig will gladly give their tough, pliable skin to Nanabush’s People.

Now the oldest man of the group stands before the oldest tree in the grove. In a quavering but determined voice, he speaks the ancient words of gratitude and asks forgiveness of the trees that he would cut. He goes on speaking, very softly now as he places tobacco at the foot of each birch. When he has finished his intimate prayer, he offers the smoking pipe to the North, South, East, West, Sky and Earth.

Early the next day they walk through the grove, admiring and honoring the marked trees. These had been selected, after a custom, in such a pattern that their removal will provide light and space for promising saplings. At each tree chosen, tobacco is offered again to the six points, and a little is placed in the Earth between the roots.

The first axe-man speaks softly to his birch, explaining the necessity of cutting it and thanking it for the gift it is about to make. He chops from one side only so the but remains attached to the stump after felling. His son has placed poles across the fall area to avoid damaging the bark and to keep the trunk off the ground for peeling. He watches in reverence as his father swings the axe. The great tree crashes down, its branches waving like desperate arms of a fallen man! It shudders for a moment, than lies still. Did it hear the prayers and accept the offerings?

The father makes the first cut. He holds the knife blade at an angle so that the knife and bark will be comfortable together. Two men pry off the bark with sticks, carefully, so that it will not split. They roll it tightly but gently into compact bundles after which they are tied with basswood strips and carried back to camp.*

*Text adaptations from THE BIRCH ‘Bright Tree of Life and Legend’ by John Peyton

Giving thanks to Wiigwassimatig

17 feet of quality canoe bark