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Mini-episode: Making a bark bag

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This episode was recorded during the Chickahominy Pow Wow in 2022.

I am Tanya Stewart. I am a tribal citizen of the Chickahominy Tribe but I am Cultural Resources Director for Chickahominy Eastern Division. I have a bark bag that I have made.

The bark bag itself came from a poplar tree. We just skin the actual tree itself. So you want to do it in the springtime, when the sap is still close to the bark. And when you peel it off the tree you’ll be able to get a whole strip of it. But you want to make sure that your strip is long enough where you’ll be able to cut it and score it in the middle to where it will fold over.

Tanya Stewart and a bark bag.
Pamela D'Angelo
Tanya Stewart and a bark bag.

You want to do all this relatively soon after you’ve taken it off the tree while it’s still soft and pliable. With that you want to punch your holes. We would actually use stone tools to do our holes, but I used a DeWalt and drilled my holes. I also used it and put it together with the holes along the side and it’s attached and put together with rawhide. Once the rawhide dries, it gets strong, it gets hard and you’re able to use it. Along with the top of the bag, it’s also a piece of bark, but it’s turned on the inside out to give it a little bit more of a decoration.

It took four hours to make this bag. But once you make it, it has to set and cure. We would have used rocks and sand and it would have taken about six months for it to cure and dry to be able to use it. Modern technology, we used kitty litter and it took a month.

Trees that would have been used to make the bags would have been poplar, maple and birch, because the bark is smoother, it’s a little bit easier to work with. Compare this type of bark to oak the sections would be wider for an oak. Different trees had different uses.

And it would almost always depend on the time of year because everything was almost always seasonal. Whatever the time of year was is what we dealt with. With making these bags, the best time of year is springtime because the sap if full and the tree would be able to rejuvenate itself. If I tried to do it now, in the fall, I’d probably kill the tree. I’d probably still be able to make the bag. Well, I would be able to make the bag. But I would probably kill the tree. But we’re all about preserving. Doing it a certain time of year, it will rejuvenate itself.

This bag would have been used by our people, pre-colonization. This particular bag is not completely solid so anything like this, you’d want to put dried goods, beans, nuts, anything you would get foraging you’d be able to put in this bag. You wouldn’t be able to carry any liquid in this particular bag but with this, it’s just something we would be able to use to carry multiple items, not just food items, any kind of tools or whatever we would use or need.

This was actually taught to me by Sam McGowen from the Mattaponi Tribe. He is the grandson of Webster Custalow, former chief of the Mattaponi Tribe. He’s working with myself and the cultural activities director for the Eastern Division, who is Keenan Stewart, who is a citizen of the Chickahominy Tribe. So, Sam is working with him specifically on flint knapping, on stone tools, wooden tools and any kind of weaponry we would have used pre-colonization. And Sam is giving back to us what his grandfather taught him.

That’s something I would like to get more involved with just getting the Tribes back together as one time we were together doing things. Not together specifically but we were doing things together casually. Not necessarily Pow Wow style but still we affiliated with each other. Being able to get with other Algonquin-speaking Tribes. People from Tribes of the Tsenacommacah area, which is us. Just being able to converse with other Natives, learn from what they were taught from their Tribes. We pretty much do the same things, know the same things but we have different orders. We’re Chickahominy, the Chickahominy River was close to us, we used those things. But the Nansemond, they’re on the water also but they’re closer to oysters; are more of a thing for them. So it’s like we would exchange the cultures, ideas, foods trades, goods, anything.

This episode was made possible by a grant from Virginia Humanities.