Material Culture and the Arts

For Native people in the Great Lakes area, finding sufficient food was sometimes a challenge.

They structured their seasonal round of movements and forays to different areas to take advantage of rice, nuts, berries and other foods which were plentiful as well as travelling to good fishing spots and areas where game was plentiful. To secure these resources and to build and furnish their homes, cloth themselves, and make all other necessary tools, Native people also had to understand the properties and uses of diverse raw materials, such as wood, stone, bark, plant fibers, leather, and others. Collecting and preparing these materials was also part of the seasonal round, and Native people knew the best times to collect these materials and where they were plentiful.

Some tools and utensils could be made quickly when the need arose. For instance, birchbark sap buckets could be quickly folded and tied, used until they were worn out, and then discarded. Others required a greater investment of time and could be used for many years, such as a birchbark canoe or a wooden bowl. The amount of care and time put into making tools, utensils, and clothing depended on their anticipated use life, and time was too precious to be expended in decorating simple items which would soon wear out. However, those things which were highly personal or could be used many years were carefully crafted and sometimes decorated. Items might also be decorated so they could be identified as one’s personal property, for instance carving an animal head on a spoon or ladle so it could be easily retrieved after a feast. Traditionally, women’s decorative efforts included weaving mats and bags, and decorating clothing with painting or porcupine-quill embroidery. With contact with Euroamericans, many fabrics became available and increased the potential for decorated clothing and other items, which could be decorated with quillwork, beadwork, and ribbonwork (ribbon appliqué). As time passed, there was also an increased in personal items, including ornaments such as earrings, necklaces, and bracelets of glass beads imported from Europe, and traded metals such as copper, silver, and German silver.


Great Lakes Indian tribes depended on the forests for raw materials for their homes and for other necessary tools and equipment, including wood and bark as important raw materials. Men did the woodworking and produced hunting and fishing equipment, household utensils, transportation devices, games, musical instruments, and other items.

Tools and the techniques for working wood and bark included: stone, and later, steel axes for chopping; wooden wedges for splitting; chisels, gouges, and knives for shaping; and scrapers for smoothing. Techniques for bending wood without breaking it were well-developed and were used in making canoe ribs, snowshoe frames, basket handles, lacrosse rackets, and other curved items. Besides carving with stone or metal knives, wooden bowls, log mortars for pounding corn, and dugout canoes were hollowed out by repeatedly placing coals or embers in a hollow, waiting for the wood to char, and then scraping off the burned areas. Dugout canoes and birchbark canoes were used when the waterways were not frozen. Dugouts were shaped and hollowed from logs, making them somewhat heavy. In the Great Lakes region, they were used in situations where they did not have to be carried, such as large lakes.

From burled sections of hardwoods such as maple, birch, and elm, Native men carved beautiful bowls, spoons, and ladles. Before the introduction of the steel crooked knife, these were all shaped by charring and scraping with stone and bone tools. Spoon handles and bowls were often ornamented with carved designs, and some were also decorated with animal effigies. Each person owned his own spoon and bowl which were used at meals and feasts. With a large ladle, food was transferred from the common cooking pot to each individual bowl.

Wooden mortars were hollowed out of a log, and in these the shelled corn was pounded into meal with a double-ended pestle. Traditional Great Lakes mortars were relatively small and low to the ground, with two projecting handles on the sides. Mortars used by the Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown were large, upright sections of large logs which had a deep hollow in the center. Smaller cylindrical mortars were also used by these tribes to pound up medicines, nuts, and other plant foods.


The thickness of the bark determined its use. Bark peeled in the spring was heavier and strong enough to use for canoes; that peeled in the summer was thinner and considered adequate for mats, containers, and other articles. Ordinarily, small pieces of bark could be removed without injuring the tree, but to obtain the large sheets needed for canoes, the tree was felled.

Mats, fashioned by overlapping sections of birchbark which were sewed together, were used to roof wigwams and to hold wild rice when it was spread out to dry. Smaller panels of birchbark were sewn together and engraved with a pointed instrument, these designs and pictures serving as memory aids to the priests in the Medicine Dance rituals. For storing, they were easily rolled up into scrolls.

Smaller pieces of birchbark were shaped into cones and used as moosecalls to attract animals during the hunt. Bark was also tightly rolled into a torch and lit, providing light for the camp, for nighttime fishing, and for shining deer. Except for making canoes and Midewiwin scrolls, gathering birchbark and fabricating items from it was done by women.

Dental pictographs were originally an art form unique to the Ojibwe. A thin sheet of birchbark was folded two or more times and designs were pressed or bitten into it with the canine teeth. The technique is similar to the way paper snowflakes are folded and cut. When the bark is unfolded, it shows a mirror pattern. Traditionally, making dental pictographs (also called “bitten bark”) was a source of amusement for children, but today, some Indian women create these patterns as an art expression and a commercial craft.


The birchbark canoe may be the most ingenious and complex use of bark in the Great Lakes region. These canoes are light and very maneuverable, and were made and used in those areas of the Great Lakes region that supported the growth of the white birch. Canoe materials included the bark from the white birch for the covering, and white cedar for the "skeleton" --  the ribs, gunwales, thwarts, prow pieces, and flooring. Sewing elements were prepared from the roots of the spruce, tamarack, or jack pine. These long, shallow roots were dug out, brought to the camp, soaked in water, and then split and trimmed for sewing.

After the tree had been felled, an incision was made along one side so the bark could be pried off with a pole. At the construction site, the bark was laid on the ground with the outer, white side facing up. A canoe form -- a wooden framework shaped like a long oval with pointed ends -- was placed on the bark and weighted down with rocks. The two sides of the bark were shaped and held upwards by posts driven into the ground outside of the bark. Cedar trees were split by maul and wedge, cut to suitable lengths for the various parts of the skeleton, and brought to the construction site for final shaping and trimming. A pair of gunwales were sewn onto the upper sides, and a curved prow piece was sewn into each end. Three or more thwarts were fitted into slots in the inboard side of each gunwale and sewn into place. The sewing was done with the aid of a slightly curved bone awl, and the awl was used to pierce holes in the bark through which the spruce root or jack pine root threads were threaded. The rib pieces were shaped with a crooked knife and soaked in water for a few days. Then they were dipped into hot water to make them flexible, bent in pairs into a U shape, and positioned in the canoe to set. When dry, they would hold their new, curved shape. The ribs were removed, and thin floor boards were laid like shingles in the bottom of the canoe. The ribs were replaced over the floor boards, the rib ends fitting between the gunwales. The ribs, thwarts, and gunwales were all sewn together with spruce roots. White pine pitch was boiled with charcoal to darken it and was then applied to those places on the exterior that required sealing, such as holes or seams in the bark. The pitch-covered seams were then smoothed with a birchbark torch.

The canoe was propelled with cedar paddles, the paddler kneeling on the floor. Since the weight of the canoe was usually less than 100 pounds, it was easy to portage (carry) between lakes and streams. Native people found birchbark canoes practical for hunting, fishing, collecting wild rice, and, in historic times, fur trading. White fur traders also adopted the birchbark canoe as a mode of transportation, and the French voyageurs used birchbark canoes 40 feet long and up to six feet wide to transport trade goods. The Woodland canoe was the prototype of the canoe used today by sportsmen in North America.

Birchbark Containers

Birchbark containers were made by first heating the bark over a fire or steaming it to make it pliable, then bending it into the desired shape and sewing it with basswood fiber or spruce roots. For cooking, these containers had to be watertight, and this was accomplished by dampening it and putting liquid in it before placing the vessel over the fire. Hot stones sometimes were added to make the food boil. Bark buckets served to catch dripping maple sap, which was then poured into larger buckets and carried to the boiling site. There also were birchbark vessels, called makuks, which would not hold water. These were shaped like truncated pyramids and were used for storing maple sugar and wild rice as well as for gathering wild fruits and berries. There were large, shallow birchbark trays for winnowing wild rice. Designs could be added to the makuks by outlining a figure or sketch and then scraping away the background to expose the lighter bark underneath. Beautiful trinket boxes were also made from birchbark and decorated with porcupine quills. Creating these is very labor-intensive, but some are still made by Indian women in some communities.

Bark String and Cordage

String and cordage were made from the inner bark of elm, cedar, and particularly basswood. The bark was peeled from the tree in long strips, preferably in the spring. The outer bark was taken off with the fingers or teeth, the inner bark then tied in coils. The narrow strips could be split and used to bind together the pole framework of the wigwam.

For other uses, the coils were boiled in a solution of wood-ash lye until the fibers began to separate. They were allowed to dry and then were cut into lengths of about three feet. The fibers were completely separated by rasping the strip through a hole in the pelvic bone of a deer. The woman would then hold two strands in one hand, place them on her bare shin or thigh and, with the palm of the other hand, roll the fibers back and forth, twisting them into a string. The three-foot lengths were spliced together and wound into a ball. This twine was extremely strong, and the Native people used it to sew cattail mats, weave bulrush mats, weave yarn and basswood storage bags, lash together various parts of their wigwams, and tie wild rice before the harvest.


A vast number of different types of items were created by weaving with various materials, including fiber and yarn bags, sashes and garters, and rush-and-bark mats. Open mesh corn-washing bags, tightly woven storage bags, small charm bags, tumplines, and many other items were made by twining. Plain and decorated mats of cattails, bulrushes, and other materials were woven for the interiors and exteriors of Native homes. Sashes and garters were made by a technique called fingerweaving.


Bags for carrying and storing sacred objects and household goods were woven of basswood and other bast-fiber string, nettle fiber, and buffalo wool. In later times, commercial cotton string and wool yarn were also used. The twining technique was used for yarn bags. This was done with a warp suspended between two thick sticks set vertically in the ground. The weaving proceeded downward. A pair of colored yarn weft strands were twined around one or two warp strands until a row around the entire bag had been completed. On the earlier bags, rows of zoomorphic designs were common. Thunderbirds, underwater panthers, and humans were interspersed with bands of geometric motifs. In many cases, the designs were different on the two sides. On more recent bags made of commercial woolen yarns, designs are composed of bands of geometric and curvilinear designs.

Large rectangular storage bags and carrying bags were also made of basswood fiber. The inner bark of basswood was boiled, then pulled into untwisted strands and dyed, after which the strands were placed over a crossbar so that they hung down in equal lengths on each side. A pair of twisted basswood cords were twined around one or two warp strands in rows about a half-inch apart. The warp strands were grouped by color, which resulted in a design of vertical colored bands.

Hulling bags or corn-washing bags were woven of cedar bark and basswood in an open, twined weave. These bags held corn while it was being soaked for cleansing after it had been boiled in an ash lye to loosen the hulls from the kernels. This process transformed corn into hominy, another staple food.

The inner bark of red cedar was also gathered and split into thin strips about a quarter-inch wide. Storage bags were also woven from this material using a simpler over-and-under weave.


Sashes and garters were woven of commercial yarn in three or more colors, one of which was usually a deep red. Fingerweaving was a popular technique in which the yarn strands were wound around a short stick in parallel rows and interlaced with one another. The one set of strands served as both warp and weft. Netting and braiding techniques were also used to make yarn sashes and garters. Women wore sashes around the waist as decorative belts to hold their dresses in place. The men wore them around the waist for decoration or to keep a deerskin jacket closed, but occasionally one was worn over the shoulder as a strap for a bag or wound around the head in turban fashion. Fingerwoven garters were worn just below the knee, by both men and women, to support the leggings.


Woven mats made of bulrushes were most common. They served as floor coverings and house partitions, or were laid on the ground or floor for serving food, especially at feasts. Bulrushes were gathered in early summer, bleached, dried, and dyed. The ends of the rushes were braided to form an even edge and then hung from a crossbar between two posts set in the ground. A basswood cord weft was passed from left to right with the rushes twined around it. The weft rows were about a half-inch apart, and the weaving progressed from top to bottom. A braided edge finished it off. Designs were usually geometric, but some zoomorphic motifs, particularly the thunderbird, could be used for smaller mats used for ceremonial purposes.

Where bulrushes were scarce, a similar kind of mat was woven from the inner bark of red cedar. This was gathered in May or June, and split into thin strips about a quarter-inch wide. The weaving was done on a frame that resembled the one used for the bulrush mats, but the technique was a simple over-and-under weave.

Another type of mat was fabricated of cattails, but these were sewn rather than woven and were used to cover wigwams. The cattails were gathered in the fall, trimmed and carried home, where they were laid out in the sun to dry. The outer layer of each stalk was peeled off and the stalks were cut to even lengths and then laid parallel on a level stretch of ground. The ends of one edge were braided over a basswood cord. Another cord was threaded through a hole near the center of a curved mat-needle. This needle, a foot long, was made from the rib of either a buffalo or a cow. The needle was passed through the stalks, across the mat, at intervals of about six inches. From time to time, water was sprinkled on the stalks to keep them pliable. When the sewing was completed, the ends were braided over a cord. The mat was rolled up and stored until needed. Mats of this type were used to cover the lower walls of wigwams, while sewn bark mats were used to cover the top. Tribes father south, where birchbark was not available, covered the entire wigwam with larger mats.


Among the northern Great Lakes peoples, birchbark containers were more extensively used than baskets, although all Woodland groups had some form of basketry. One traditional type of basket is the coiled basket made of sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) which exudes a sweet fragrance, particularly when dried. The grass, which grows about two feet high, was bundled into coils about an eighth to a quarter-inch in diameter. One end was knotted, and the coil was wound around the knot and sewn with a fiber thread. When the flat base was completed by sewing several coils together, the sides were built up in a bowl form. A bone awl was used to open a hole for the passage of the thread, which was passed around the free coil and beneath the fastened coil below. Besides round and oval bowl forms, there were trinket baskets and shallow dishes and trays.

Wicker baskets of willow stems, cedar roots, or basswood bark were also constructed, but to a limited degree.

Plaited, black-ash splint baskets were introduced to the Great Lakes tribes by the Oneida, Stockbridge, and Brothertown tribes which came to Wisconsin in the 1820s. Woodsplint basketry -- also known as splint, split-wood, checker-plaited, ash-splint, or a variety of other names -- was the most common basket technology in native New England following European contact. Large-scale basket production probably began in the mid-18th century. Using a variety of tools -- crooked knife, drawknife and drawhorse, basket gauge, awl -- baskets were checker-plaited of a variety of materials, especially black or brown ash (Fraxinus nigra) or white oak (Quercus alba), and bound with hoops and handles of maple and other materials.

Splints for making baskets are pounded from a log using an axe or mallet, trimmed with a knife, and woven into baskets. In New England and New York, baskets were colorfully decorated, and this technology was also introduced to the Great Lakes region. The Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, and Menominee all made and used undecorated baskets for household work as well as baskets decorated with colored splints. Today, the Ho-Chunk are most active in continuing production of this type of basket.

Hide Preparation

After a deer had been shot, the entrails were removed and the cavity stuffed with grass. The hunter carried the deer home on his back with the aid of a tumpline made from a hide strap about a foot long and two to three inches wide. The tumpline passed over the man’s forehead and held the deer on the small of his back.

To skin the deer, a cut was made from the base of the abdomen to the head. The skin was pulled away from the flesh with the left hand, while the right fist was used to separate the hide from the deer’s carcass using a punching motion. Knives were never used in this process because of the possibility of cutting the hide and spoiling it. After the hide was pulled away from the underside, a circular cut was made around each leg, about a foot from the toe end, and another cut was made from the lower leg to the central belly cut. The skin was pulled off the four legs and the carcass was rolled over and the hide pulled off, making the final cuts around the head.

From this point on, women took over the tanning process. If the hide was to be tanned within a day or two, it was put into a tub of water and left to soak. Otherwise, the blood and dirt were rinsed off and it was hung on a clothesline or a branch, skin side out, where it dried and stiffened. The former was referred to as a "green" hide and the latter as a "dried" hide. Green hides were better for tanning. Since tanning was woman's work, women and their daughters were equipped with the proper tools and were taught these techniques at an early age.

A summer hide, although thinner, was tougher than a fall or winter hide, and women preferred them for making clothing. The best hides were those taken in July and August. Winter hides were not so numerous because less deer-hunting was done in the wintertime. Early spring hides, especially those secured in April, could not be tanned because the hair was deep in the skin. In the old days, such hides were scraped on the skin side to remove excess flesh, dried with the hair on, and used as rugs and coverings for sleeping platforms in the wigwams.

Before they could be tanned for clothing, dried hides had to be softened by soaking them in water for at least two days. This was not essential with a green hide. The hide was washed with soap in lukewarm water to remove dirt, blood, and other material. It was then thoroughly rinsed, wrung out, and thrown over a beaming post,  a peeled log about eight inches in diameter and three to four feet long set into the ground at a 45-degree angle or held in that position by two wooden legs. In historic times, the beaming tool or scraper was a cylindrical piece of wood, usually cedar, a foot-and-a-half long and two-and-a-half inches in diameter. Into this was embedded the blade of a common table knife, the edge of which had been filed flat so that the hide would not be cut while it was being scraped. At prehistoric sites, archaeologists have found beaming tools of bone with slots in them for the insertion of chipped-stone scrapers.

The woman stood leaning over the high end of the beaming post. She held the beamer in both hands, the blade pointing slightly backward, and, with each downward push, she scraped a path of hair. A winter hide sometimes required shearing off some of the thick hair before scraping could proceed. When all the hair was removed, the hide was reversed and the skin side scraped to remove excess bits of flesh. The hide was washed again with soap and water and then rinsed. To wring out the water, the woman made a loop of the hide around an upright post, inserted a stick through the loop, and, leaning heavily on the stick, twisted it so that the pressure on the hide removed all the water.

The next step was an important one to soften the hide. The hide was thoroughly soaked in a tub of warm water that contained the dried brains of deer or other animals which contained chemical substances which helped break down the fibers in the skin. After the hide had been soaked in the brain solution for about five minutes, it was rinsed in clear water and wrung out by being twisted around the wrist. Further wringing was done by the stick-twisting method. A winter hide usually required another soaking in the brain solution.

The hide was then hung on a line, the wrinkles pulled out, and bullet holes sewn up with needle and thread. Along the edge of the hide, holes were cut at intervals of three to four inches and a cord was passed through one hole and out the next all the way around the skin. The holes and the cord allowed easy suspension on the stretching frame. Every tanner had one of these frames set up permanently in a shady spot in her yard. The frame consisted of two posts set into the ground five to six feet apart with horizontal crossposts tied on about three-and-a-half feet apart. A cord was attached to the neck of the hide and fastened to one of the upright posts of the frame. The tail portion was attached to the other upright, and the legs were tied with cords to each of the four corners of the frame. A long cord was passed through the edge lacing and then around the frame and the hide itself could be drawn taut within the rectangle. A stretching tool made of wood with a convex blunt edge was strongly pushed and stroked in a sweeping motion across the hide, causing it to stretch. After a few minutes of this, the suspension cords needed tightening. This process was repeated over and over until the hide had reached its maximum size.

During all this time the hide was drying, and it had to be completely dry before it could be removed from the frame. The frame was always set up in the shade so the hide would not dry too rapidly, otherwise it would shrink and stiffen. Depending on the weather, the hide stayed on the frame for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half. When the woman removed it, the hide was pure white and very soft to the touch.

Now the hide was ready to be smoked to a golden brown. The smoke helped to keep it from getting stiff when wet, and the color prevented it from showing dirt and soil. The edges of the hide were sewn together to form a cylindrical bag with an opening at one end about a foot or more in diameter. Onto this end the woman sewed a strip of cloth about two feet wide that she fitted over the smudge bucket to prevent the lower part of the hide from getting soiled or burned. She then hung the hide from the branch of a tree by a cord, so that the open end nearly reached the ground. She started a smudge fire in a galvanized water pail, using rotten pine, poplar, or dried Norway pine cones. When the smudge had a good start, she slipped the bucket under the bag. The strip of cloth around the bottom trapped the rising smoke inside the bag, smoking and coloring the inner side of the hide. More fuel was added at intervals and the skin bag was turned inside out so both sides were smoked. Finally, a beautiful golden color, the hide was taken down, and after the threads were cut, it was hung on a line to air out. It was now ready to be used. While deerskin was valued primarily for clothing, it also was utilized for thongs for cradleboards and snowshoes, storage bags for tobacco, and for the heads of several kinds of drums.


Quillwork -- embroidery with porcupine quills -- is an art found only in North America and was part of the traditional decorative repertoire of Great Lakes Indian women. Dyed porcupine quills were sewn with sinew onto deerskin clothing, knife sheaths, and medicine bags. Quills were also woven on looms to make belts, tumplines, and decorative strips that were later applied to clothing. Pipestems were also wrapped or bound with quillwork. Porcupine quills were also stitched on birchbark boxes in geometric and floral designs . Traditionally, quills were dyed with native vegetable dyes, but following contact with Europeans, quills could be dyed by boiling them with non-colorfast cloth, or in the 19th and 20th centuries, with commercial dyes.

For embroidery, the quills were moistened in the mouth and flattened by being pulled out between the teeth or with special bone flatteners. Designs were made by attaching the quills to deerskin with sinew thread crossing over the quill. The quills could not be pierced or they would split. Before decorating birchbark boxes, women soaked the quills in water until they were soft, left them unflattened, and then used an awl to pierce small holes in the bark and inserted the points through the holes. The points were trimmed and bent back against the bark to hold them in place. Both floral and geometric designs were worked in this fashion. Because the natural and dyed colors of the quills were generally light, quillwork designs were most striking on darker materials, and leather used for quill-decorated bags and moccasins was often dyed a dark brown with juice from butternut husks.


Glass beads became available after contact with Europeans. Beads made in Venice, and later in what was then Czechoslovakia, were commonly available at trading posts and reservations stores. During early periods, large beads suitable for necklaces were available, and in the nineteenth century, much smaller beads suited to embroidery were also widely sold and adapted to quillwork or painted designs which had been used to decorate clothing, bags, and other items made of leather or cloth. As compared to quillwork, the use of beads was both a labor-saving method and allowed a much wider color selection, and Native women used these opportunities to develop intricate designs for clothing and other items.

To decorate items with beadwork, women used both loom and embroidery techniques. The earliest loom was the bow loom, a bent stick with doubled-up birchbark heddles attached to each end to hold the warp threads in place. The box loom was also used --  a rectangular frame with the warp threads strung over the end bars. In historic times, beads were strung on silk, linen, or cotton thread with a long, fine, steel needle. By creating strips of woven beadwork with looms, Woodland Indian women produced belts, garters, headbands, necklaces, and decorative bands to be fastened onto deerskin or cloth.

For bead embroidery, the "spot" or "overlay" stitch was used. Beads were strung on a thread and laid in position on the cloth or hide, with a second thread crossing over the first, usually after two or three beads, and then passed through or into the hide to hold the beads firmly in place. Earlier bead embroidery was done with sinew from either the deer or moose. Since sinew is rather scratchy, it was undesirable for stitches to show on the inside, so the sinew was threaded inside the skin and did not actually pass through the deerskin. Bead embroidery became popular on clothing and on bags of various types, especially bandolier bags, which were worn as decorative accessories on dress occasions. These bags may have been derived from the bandolier or bullet pouch worn over one shoulder by the United States military or may have evolved from similar bags worn in prehistoric times. Since the pouches of bandolier bags were often sewn shut, they were as much a badge of status as a useful bag.

Most early bead and quill designs were geometric or soft curves. True floral designs are thought to have been adopted from early Europeans, particularly the French, and have been made popularly by Indian women for at least 200 years. However, these designs did not entirely replace earlier designs, and geometric designs such as the white bead border called "otter tail" have continued into modern times.

While loom work is difficult to distinguish from tribe to tribe, quill and bead embroidery has variations and distinctive traits, including favorite colors, which aid in identification. For instance, Ojibwe bead embroidery is quite realistic and some leaves and flowers can be identified by species and have many details such as leaf veining. However, some designs are very ornate and combine oak leaves, grapes, and wild roses on one stem. The southern tribes used more stylized designs which emphasize bilateral symmetry, designs outlined in a contrasting color (usually white), and greater use of geometric designs.

Silk Appliqué / Ribbonwork

Silk appliqué or "ribbonwork" is another extremely important art form among Woodland Indians. Native women cut patterns from silk and fold, tuck, and sew them as decoration onto woolen cloth garments. Silk appliqué was practiced by the Indians of the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi Valley as early as 1750. In Wisconsin, ribbonwork designs were most common among the Potawatomi, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk. The Ojibwe used ribbonwork as a decorative technique less frequently.

The earliest ribbonwork was done with silk ribbon. While ribbonwork was found mostly on women's skirts and shoulder robes, it was also used to decorate men's leggings, moccasins, and cradleboard wrappers. Although geometric designs were used to a considerable extent, the majority were curvilinear or floral. More recently, silk ribbons have given way to bolt silk, nylon, and rayon. Using scissors, women cut designs from one color of silk, sewed them onto a panel of another color, and then sewed this, as a decorative border, to a broadcloth garment. Silk was rarely appliqued to deerskin.

Women sometimes sewed the design down with silk thread in a contrasting color. This was particularly effective in the cross-stitch, which resulted in an X-shaped thread pattern, and in the herringbone stitch. The blind stitch, one in which the threads are hidden, was used to sew the panel onto the broadcloth. Later, the panels were stitched on with the sewing machine. During the mid-20th century, ribbonwork died out, but is now undergoing a resurgence as women adapt the use of sewing machines to create traditional and innovative designs for traditional clothing worn at powwows and other special occasions.


Before the advent of Europeans, metalworking by Great Lakes tribes was confined to working native copper. Copper was mined by prehistoric Indian people from deposits in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and made into tools through cold hammering and not by smelting (heating the copper to liquid). Manufacture of some copper tools, such as awls and celts, may have continued to historic times.

Silversmithing was introduced to Indians along the Atlantic Coast by early European colonists. In time, it was taken up by nearly all the Woodland tribes, and this technology was probably brought to Wisconsin by the Oneida during the 1820s. Early work was done in coin silver by hammering coins to flatten them into thin sheets which were used to made brooches and other items. However, coin silver was soon replaced by what is called “German silver,” an alloy composed mostly of nickel, with some zinc and copper. German silver was sold or traded in readymade sheets, and could be cut with gravers and stamped with die-stamps improvised from iron files. Silverworking tools also included a small vise, hammer, pincers, compass, and soldering iron. German silver was fashioned into circular brooches, bracelets, headbands, combs, rings, and earrings which were additionally decorated with cutout designs or incised lines, dots, and figures. Women often wore dozens of brooches on their blouses and dresses. Small ring-shaped brooches were sometimes called “friendship brooches” and were exchanged by women as tokens of their regard for one another.