For thousands of years, the trees that crowd the eastern woodlands of North America have provided Native peoples with the raw materials and inspiration to fashion beautiful and useful tools out of bark and wood. Gifts of the Forest: Native Traditions in Wood, a new exhibit at Montreal’s McCord Museum, explores the essential role of the forest in both contemporary and historical Aboriginal craft work.

“Trees are an intermediary between the natural world and the invisible elements of the world,” explains Dolores Contré Migwans, director of Native programs at the McCord Museum. “They are like human beings – upright, living things which are spiritual as well as physical, and they have the role of keeping a balance in nature. For the contemporary artists included in the exhibit as for their ancestors, trees are both physical beings, the earth’s plentiful gifts, and spiritual intermediaries.” Handcrafts from modern artisans are displayed alongside historical examples from the 19th century or earlier. The collection includes woven splint baskets and boxes adorned with dyed porcupine quills, spoons and bowls, pipes, awls and knives. Other cases display tools used for carving and weaving, including crooked knives and splint gauges, which are decorated with animal and human forms.

An exquisitely crafted children’s toy set, dating back to the 19th century, is especially remarkable – the miniature canoe and a family of dolls are crafted out of bark and cloth, depicted as they would have been dressed in the fashions of the day and packed into a canoe for a long voyage. The set includes a scale canoe, a perfectly detailed little papoose and snowshoes, even a tiny family dog! According to Dolores Migwans, many of the exhibit pieces were artworks bought by white tourists from the native craftspeople as early as the 19th century. And she believes the objects still carry the secrets of tradition.

“Personally, as an artist, I would have infused my crafts with messages about trees and about nature – even if those messages about our culture had to be hidden in those days,” she explains. “While the objects survived in collections, they would carry on messages, of spiritual health and the interconnectedness of all things, into the [present day] when we can talk openly about our way of looking at things.” Migwans is fond of the display containing several highly prized Tikenogans, passed down for generations by the Ojibway, Algonquin and Attikamek peoples. Tikenogans are ingeniously designed and beautiful cradleboards that, she feels, demonstrate many things about the people who make and use them.

“Since the child is portable and her education starts early, she learns the sounds and sights of the forest as she is carried by her parents. The board helps her to grow straight and strong, and protects her in water and on land if the Tikenogan should capsize.” Objects like Tikenogans are all some people need to get their imaginations going. Others, might find this typical archeological exhibit with glassed-in cases displaying untouchable and valuable handiworks in an archival-type setting, a little dry. That’s why artisans like Nick Huard, a dreamcatcher-maker from Kahnawarke, are around to keep things lively. Huard came from his shop, The Hawk’s Nest, to gab with visitors and give hands-on demos of his craft.

“Here, we play!” says Huard. “That’s the whole point, isn’t it? I’ve brought various caribou and fox pelts, bones, skulls and feathers for people to touch, to give them an idea of the materials I use.” Huard’s tools are handcrafted using the same techniques and materials as his ancestors. He brought chisels, knives, furs, feathers, leathers and animal skulls, as well as dreamcatchers and a pipe/ tomahawk he made from a beautifully patterned caribou antler.

“It’s an honour to be here in the museum with my ancestors, and I’m not even dead yet,” he jokes. “Even though I’m on display, visitors don’t have to handle me with white gloves, because I’m not an artifact yet and I’m not about to disintegrate.” Gifts of the Forest: Native Traditions in Wood and Bark Curated by the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Centre in Mashantucket, Connecticut.

At the McCord Museum June 21-March 2. 2003 690 Sherbrooke West, Montreal 514-398-5045