During precontact days, birch bark biting was practiced mainly by women in tribes “wherever the birch tree grows,” Church says. That area is vast; it includes British Columbia, northwest Alaska, Washington state, the northern Great Plains, the Appalachian Mountains, the Great Lakes and New England. Tribes that have practiced the art form include some Algonquin peoples of the Great Lakes parts of Canada and the United States, Ojibwe, Pottawatomi, Abenaki, Odawa, Chippewa and some groups of Cree.
To create an image — a dragonfly, a flower, a hummingbird — artists use their eyeteeth (the sharp teeth also known as canines) to pierce the delicate, onion-thin skin just enough to make indentations. They move the piece around in their mouth, creating symmetrical shapes. They can’t see the results of their work until they unfold the bark and hold it to the light.