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Moorhead woman preserves history through ancient art of birch bark biting

Denise Lajimodiere is resurrecting a dying art. "It died out in my tribe," the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa member said. "It's almost a lost traditional art." About eight years ago, the Moorhead woman started practicing the ancient art of bir...

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Denise Lajimodiere is resurrecting a dying art.

“It died out in my tribe,” the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa member said. “It’s almost a lost traditional art.”

About eight years ago, the Moorhead woman started practicing the ancient art of birch bark biting. She was inspired to learn the technique after purchasing a biting of a dragonfly at an art show. The artist, Kelly Church, of Michigan, became Lajimodiere’s mentor.

“She sent me all the tricks of the trade and got me started, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Lajimodiere said. “I practiced for about four years before I felt good enough to start framing and selling.”

The traditional name for the art form is Mazinibakajige, which means “marks upon the bark,” Lajimodiere said.

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She creates her designs by folding thin layers of birch bark and biting patterns into them.

“There’s nothing you can do wrong,” she said. “There isn’t any design that doesn’t turn out beautiful.”

Lajimodiere gathers birch bark in the spring in a process that involves a ceremony for the tree, she said.

“We do no harm to the tree,” she said.

She starts peeling the bark into thin layers that will become the base for her artwork in the summer and does most of her biting in the winter.

“It’s a very calming and peaceful and healing art for me to do,” she said.

She typically creates designs of flowers, turtles and dragonflies. Her favorite design is the dragonfly.

“A lot of tribes have traditional stories about the dragonfly,” she said. “They bring healing. We believe they can even carry the spirits of our ancestors down to visit and watch over us. When they land on you and move their feet, we believe they’re cleansing you of something.”

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Lajimodiere’s home is adorned in dragonfly decor-some of it is birch bark biting artwork.

“Birch bark means a lot to Ojibwe people,” she said. “It was our food utensils, it was our canoes, our homes, it was our medicines, our baskets. I like the feel of the birch bark. It’s almost therapeutic. I’ve had a rough year. To sit and peel is very relaxing.”

The Ojibwe artist is also a poet, writer and assistant professor in North Dakota State University’s School of Education. She recently spent six months teaching a young Ojibwe woman, Megan Sennie, the art form as part of the North Dakota Council on the Arts Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.

“It was wonderful to have a young girl from my tribe who I could pass it on to,” she said. “It’s a legacy.”

Sennie said she is also a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and she saw the apprenticeship as a good opportunity to learn an Ojibwe folk art form.

“I felt grateful to be able to learn it once I knew its history and how rare it was,” she said. “I also saw it as an opportunity to become closer to my culture since I had been seeking to do so for a while.”

Sennie recently moved to Alaska from Fargo but said she brought some bark with her and plans to continue practicing the art.

“I think that the whole thing is more than just art, it’s preserving history,” she said.

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Troyd Geist, a folklorist with the North Dakota Council on the Arts, said it’s important these traditions are not only kept alive but are also encouraged to grow.

“The art of Ojibwe birch bark biting is very rare,” he said. “The techniques, process and aesthetics are a reflection of a body of traditional knowledge. It is this knowledge that is important, and it is transferred to new generations in its most potent way-by actually engaging in the art.”

Lajimodiere said she plans to teach as many people the technique as are interested. She is now working on adding dyed porcupine quills and beads to some of her biting designs.

She sells her work at art shows. It will also be on display at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo through May 22 as part of the museum’s Emerging Visions exhibition of emerging Native American artists in the region.

In November, Lajimodiere was selected for a Minnesota Historical Society Native American Artist-in-Residence award. The program is designed to help revive traditional forms of American Indian art. Lajimodiere will serve a six-month paid residency to study her art form and share her knowledge by developing community-based programming.

Related Topics: ART
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