Exploring the Mi’kmaq Culture with a Quillwork Inspired Craft {Native American Heritage Month Blog Hop and Giveaway}

Mi`kmaq Quill Box button

This post is part of the Native American Heritage Month Blog Hop & Giveaway – see details below!

In honor of the Native American Heritage Month, I’d like to introduce you to the Mi’kmaq (also known as MicMac), the earliest settlers of my home province of Nova Scotia, Canada.

The term “Mi’kmaq” means ‘my kin friends’.

The Mi’kmaq are a First Nations people living in parts of Canada’s Atlantic provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland), Quebec and in the United States, in Maine, New England with a population of roughly 20,000. Approximately one third of this population can read, write and speak the Mi’kmaq language.

The Mi’kmaq have lived in Eastern Canada for over 10,000 years. You can read more about how the Mi’kmaq historically lived here.

Mi'kmaq Regions By Mikmaq (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Mi’kmaq Territory
By Mikmaq (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

The Mi’kmaq were, and are, creative craftspeople. Traditional everyday use items are now considered unique art. Birch bark canoes, beaded clothing and woven baskets are celebrated traditional handicrafts. The Mi’kmaq were especially well known for the unique craft of porcupine quillwork.

Museum Quillwork Collage
Baskets, boxes and even chairs decorated in gorgeous patterns with porcupine quills, seen at a local museum.

Quillwork is a traditional art in which porcupine quills were used to embellish clothing, accessories and containers of birch bark. Because of the skilled and intricate quill work, the Mi’kmaq were often referred to as “the porcupine people”. After 1750, decorative objects with quillwork were a major source of income, whether traded as barter or for money. Today, only a handful of artists continue this traditional handicraft. You can see more examples of beautiful quill art here.

Porcupine Quillwork baskets
Birchbark Quill Boxes. Colorfully dyed quills are applied in geometric patterns, while natural quills are applied along the edges of the cover and the container.

Porcupine quills, as seen below, are naturally white with black tips. Once removed from a hunted porcupine, the quills are cleaned, sorted by sized and then are used either naturally or dyed in various colors. Sometimes the quills need to be flattened and most often moistened prior to use.

Bin filled with porcupine quills
Bin filled with porcupine quills

The artisans who we have seen continuing this traditional handicraft have been making birch bark quill boxes. The photo below shows the lid of a birch bark box being worked with quills. To insert the quills into decorative patterns, the bark is first perforated with an awl. The quills are threaded through the holes, and the moistened quills stiffen into place as they dry. The ends of the quills on the underside of the work are either folded over or snipped off, depending on how small the holes are and how tightly the quills are held.

A birch container's cover with eight pointed star pattern in quillwork
A birch container’s cover with eight pointed star pattern in quillwork

A common decorative pattern on birch bark boxes is the Mi’kmaq Eight Pointed Star. This star has been used for centuries as a symbol of the sun and has several meanings. Seven of the points represent the seven districts of the Mi’kmaq nation, while the eight was included in the 18th century to represent an alliance then established with Great Britain. The star also represents the four cardinal directions (North, South, East, West) and all those in between. The four colors, Red, Black, Yellow and White, represent the “four races of people”. When the star is made with the four colors, it represents togetherness and unity with all nations. It was a common symbol in 19th century quillwork, and continues to be popular in contemporary Mi’kmaq artwork and design.

Make a Mi’kmaq Quill Box Inspired Craft

Mi'kmaq Quillwork inspired craft for kids

This craft is one way to explore the Mi’kmaq culture with kids. After looking at various examples and a close up of porcupine quills, have them make their own quillwork box to hold their treasures.

What you need:

  • One box. The one we used is 6″ x 6″
  • Toothpicks. To create the 8 pointed star pattern,  you will need at least 16. Then it depends on what patterns you want to create. I recommend having extras just in case.
  • Acrylic paint and paintbrush. Any color you’d like, but we used the 4 colors to represent the 4 nations: black, red, yellow and white.
  • Clear drying white glue.


  1. You can start off by painting a bunch of toothpicks (what we did) and determine your pattern from there, or design first so you know how many toothpicks you’ll need. Be sure to paint a couple of extra toothpicks for each color, just in case. The wood absorbs the paint fairly quickly so they don’t take too long to dry. By the time we got to our fourth color, the first was dry. Do make sure they are dry before using them. This is a great task to share – with each person choosing one color to paint. It’s also a great time to talk about the symbolism of the four colors (as above).

Quill craft Collage

2.  Prepare the toothpicks for the eight pointed star design. For each color (2 points of the star), you need 4 painted toothpicks. To “cut” them to size, we simply used our hands to bend and break them. They break rather easily, and you don’t need to be precise. With the four toothpicks of each color,  break two in half and save the three best pieces. For the other two, break them in approximately three equal pieces. Save the four smaller pieces that turned out the nicest. Once “cut” to size, for each color you will want 3 longer pieces and 4 smaller pieces, as pictured below.


3. To make the eight pointed star design, start by creating a cross with four right angles using the longer pieces, as pictured below in the top images. To glue the toothpicks, run a bead of glue along the length of the stick. It’s very likely glue will pool around the edges, and you can clean that up by gently scraping it away with a regular toothpick. Or leave it to dry clear. Then take the third longer piece and glue it diagonally in the center of each right angle, as pictured bottom left. Finish the points with the smaller pieces. I recommend placing two at a time first to align them, then glue them in place in order to get the angle right. And there you have it. Feel free to embellish the lid any way you like.

Quill Craft Collage 2

4. Create a design on the sides of the box. Be sure the toothpicks do not get in the way of the closed lid. With the striped pattern we did, rather than bead the glue along each toothpick, we only did it for the bottom stick and then dabbed glue on the box. The toothpicks were then placed on over the other in the glue. It’s easier than one at a time.

Quill Craft Collage 3

And you have a completed “quillwork” box, to hold your treasures.

Cultural events and hands on activities are fun ways to get to know the diverse cultures that have and continue to shape the region we live in. I hope you’ve enjoyed this small look into the Mi’kmaq culture.

These photos are from Mi'kmaq pow-wows and cultural events we have attended. Clockwise from left: In traditional costume prior to a pow-wow dance; I am being treated to a smudging; bannock bread cooking over a fire pit.
These photos are from Mi’kmaq pow-wows and cultural events we have attended. Clockwise from left: In traditional regalia prior to a pow-wow dance; I am being treated to a smudging; bannock bread cooking over a fire pit.

About the Author

Marie-ClIMG_2714aude is the parent of two teen girls. Over the years, they have immersed themselves virtually in various cultures. This year they have been exploring the cultures of West Africa, which is being chronicled on her blog at mariespastiche.blogspot.com.

 photo 2014NAHMbutton-001_zpsc85ee76c.jpgMulticultural Kid Blogs is proud to host the first annual Native American Heritage Month Blog Hop & Giveaway! Link up your posts on Native American cultures below, and be sure to enter to win one of our great prize packages!

For more great posts about Native cultures, be sure to follow our Native/Indigenous Cultures board on Pinterest!


November 3:

Daria’s Music on Multicultural Kid Blogs

Crafty Moms Share

All Done Monkey

November 6:

Marie’s Pastiche on Multicultural Kid Blogs

November 7:

Toddling in the Fast Lane

November 10:

The Good Long Road

The Mommy Factor

Global Advocate, Jr.

Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes

November 13:

Crystal’s Tiny Treasures

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Native AmericansNative Americans, by James Lagomarsino, donated by Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes

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Marie-Claude is parent of two teen girls. Over the years, they have immersed themselves virtually in various cultures. This year they have been exploring the cultures of West Africa, which is being chronicled on her blog at www.mariespastiche.blogspot.com.

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7 thoughts on “Exploring the Mi’kmaq Culture with a Quillwork Inspired Craft {Native American Heritage Month Blog Hop and Giveaway}”

  1. Thank you so much Marie-Claude for this post! I love to read about Native Americans. My father, when he was young, was fond of everything “Western and Amerindians” and I received a book of stories (myths and legends) that I have read quite often during my childhood. Now that I have kids, I will read these meaningful tales to them and hope that they will be as amazed at these rich cultures as I am.

    1. It’s always that much more special when we can share stories we loved in our childhood with our kids!

  2. A very interesting post, one can find so much inspiration in our ancestor’s arts. I wouldn’t use the porcupine quills but still the star is so beautiful.

    1. There really is so much inspiration from artwork created from natural materials on hand – such ingenuity as well!

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