I first heard of porcupine quill boxes a couple of years ago on Bev Wigney's blog, Burning Silo. Quills are embroidered into boxes made of tree bark, and sweetgrass is often used to finish the edges. Native Americans have done quill art for thousands of years but there are few left who are proficient in the technique. Manitoulin Island has a handful of quill box artists and their work is sold in local stores for a handsome price. I looked for the boxes after reading Bev's post and was surprised to find prices starting at over $100 and going into the $1000s of dollars for larger pieces. Many have very intricate designs including animals, birds and landscapes. Porcupines were hunted for food and the quills were used for clothing and crafts. Today, their quills are obtained by throwing a blanket over a porcupine;- the quills stick in the blanket, and the artist literally has a sheet of quills with which to work. (source)
We went to a store on the nearby reserve to look for a warmer shirt for me to wear on our "summer" holiday. It was raining outside so we browsed through the shop looking at the wide selection of native arts and crafts. The owner opened the case of quill boxes and started telling me about the five quill box artists whose work was featured there. I mentioned that buying a quill box was something like investing in a Royal Doulton figurine.
He said, "In another generation there will still be new Royal Doulton, but there will be no more quill box artists."
I don't know if his prediction will be accurate, but his sales pitch was excellent and my husband encouraged me to buy one I liked. I chose a more traditional design that featured plenty of porcupine quills and a the flower of a trillium, the provincial flower of Ontario. I should have asked the name of the lady who made this particular quill box and plan to inquire the next time I am there.
There are other small shops on the island which sell the work of local artists on consignment. Bruno Henry is a native artist who works with many different mediums. I bought this hand painted water colour greeting card in Manitowaning. Other non-native artists make their home in this remote spot and are inspired by the natural beauty and history of the region.
The proprieter of the shop told me he has customers who return and buy a quill box each year for a collection. I am not convinced that I need to collect them, but am glad to have one as a unique keepsake.