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  • Whatever prompted me to join the Quill Course at Old Fort William, the interpretive center in Thunder Bay. Perhaps it was friends that suggested I find a hobby, or possibly it was the desire to unleash my creative juices, or more realistically it was to escape the monotony of the long days having moved to Northwestern Ontario from the frantic pace I was accustomed to in Southern Ontario. What ever the reason, this class called to me and I hoped that in the least it would be an opportunity to meet other women.  

    I look back on that morning with a sense of humour, choosing the appropriate outfit - a long corduroy skirt, white blouse, shawl, and a warm sweater just in case it was cool in the Great Room. I imagined a wood-burning fireplace casting its shadow, it being the main source of heat with fluctuating outside temperatures. Snow was in the forecast, and I admired my wise clothing choices.

    While approaching the main building I remembered that I had been instructed to go around the back of the property through the Administration Building. ‘Strange choice’ I muttered, pulled my scarf closer, and trudged up the path to the building where I was directed to a conference room, past the modern day work shops which housed tractors and tools - not exactly as I'd pictured this event, no fireplace, no "Great Room" or hand tools, but I'd persist, after all I'd paid my 25 bucks.

    I walked into the room where the other women attendees were seated, a mixture of age and culture, dressed in sweat suits or casual attire, their faces free of make up, and one thing was evident from the conversation - they were experienced crafters and not there for socializing. I looked down at my outfit and thought maybe my choices weren’t that wise after all.

    My excitement increased as the instructor explained how the day would unfold. Recounting her personal history working with porcupine quills: hours spent at the foot of her Grandmother learning the art of soaking and weaving porcupine quills together to make boxes to hold treasures, medicine bags and jewellery, and her promise of passing along the wisdom. Her eyes glistened while explaining the importance of the role of Native women in the 1800 and 1900's. Her enthusiasm and personal anecdotes kept my interest and I wondered if the Spirit of my paternal grandmother had prompted me to join this class.

    The instructor kept reassuring us that we could go at our own pace. The majority of the day would be spent practicing, and we would possess the skills necessary to take the materials for our own medicine bag and complete them at home. The quills I’d soaked weren’t co-operating when I tried to cover them with a stitch, my index finger was spurting drops of blood from misjudging where the needle was going to come through the hide as I practiced the technique that looked so easy.

    When she carried in the green garbage bag and heaved it up on the table, nothing had prepared me for what was next. To my shock, there in that bag were the remains of a dead porcupine. 'Road kill' she said excitedly “a perfect opportunity to harvest your own quills.”I could feel my breath quicken and my heart pounding as I tried to focus and not run out the door. Hadn’t all of my father’s hunting and guiding prepared me for this? Although he tried to hide his Native ancestry, each time he returned from the North his love for the land and nature was evident although perplexing through a child's eyes.

    “Easy does it” I muttered under my breath, and for the next hour (which seemed like an eternity) she explained the technique of pulling quills from the carcass, about the natural grease and under-hair on the animal, and, the paws that were perfect for constructing necklaces. As she stroked the little paw, my thoughts strayed to my grand-daughter’s tiny foot and how much I missed her. I was pulled back to the present moment when she picked up an instrument and severed the claws from the animal, counted, and bagged them evenly for us to take home and freeze “to be used later for your personal good luck ornament to hang from your neck.” I politely declined the little black claws, my sister crafters were thrilled with obtaining my share for their collection. “Maybe I'd scored some points after all” I chuckled inwardly.

    Next we learned about deer legs: how they could be harvested for the sinew used for sewing leather. Boiling the hooves were a perfect ‘natural’ alternative for wind chimes. The dewclaw (I didn’t know what a dew claw was before this) was often used in ornamental jewellery or decorations on a dress or handbag. The moose or deer bladder could be used for storing needles or other possessions.

    All of this was a gentle reminder that in Native culture everything had meaning, there was no waste, and a stark contrast to the materialistic, consumer driven life I lived before moving here. My father had tried to teach me many lessons about nature and survival, but I wasn’t ready in those days, I was far too busy with the pursuit of ego driven dreams.

    After hours of practicing the stitches necessary to decorate the medicine bag I was no closer to starting the good piece than when I'd arrived. I decided that the experience in it’s self was worth the money I'd paid and left the group of women in the conference room. I was filled with a sense of gratitude that this day was part of the healing necessary to sustain my life in Northwestern Ontario. Maybe I'd sign up for moccasin making, who knows what lessons would unfold there.
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