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January 2014, vol 9, no 4

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Pat Tompkins

Erethizon dorsatum


Two words that don’t go together: “beautiful” and “porcupine”. To another porcupine, perhaps, beauty is not a foreign term. But for humans, who favor cuddly and cute, handsome and powerful, swift and sleek, the porcupine looks weird, a spiny pig of a rodent. A slow, wood-gnawing herbivore, hardly admirable.

And yet. A porcupine quill is the essence of form and function, yes, a thing of beauty, albeit a dangerous beauty. You would not want this weapon to pierce your skin. And one porcupine is armed with thousands of them. Each is firm, yet pliable, with ferociously pointed tips. Not an object to embrace.

And yet. Native Americans embroidered leather and bark with quills long before they employed glass beads. With dyes derived from plants, they used quills to satisfy the common urge to decorate: to honor through adornment. Another technique involved plaiting multiple quills of different colors into sturdy bands. Their arts and crafts tradition used what was available, feathers, antlers, animal teeth, grasses, to create.

in museum cases
Cree and Lakota quillwork:
worn, resilient




crane