Catherine Baldwin – Anishinaabe Artist

Catherine Baldwin
(b. 1935 – d. 2001)

Catherine Baldwin known internationally for her artistic talent creating quill-work on birch bark and black ash baskets. She also played a key role in the 1970’s compiling genealogical and membership documentation which led to the official recognition of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians by the Federal Department of the Interior. Catherine was born on August 8th, 1935 and was raised in Peshawbestown, MI by Edward and Lucille (Peshaba) Harris. Around the age of 10 she began to learn traditional quillwork and basketry skills from her mother and grandmothers. An artform passed down from generation to generation, taught to the youth by their elders. Catherine became extremely talented in both crafts and went on to lead classes, programs, and presentations about her process. Her quill box artwork has been collected and exhibited in several museums across the world including the Smithsonian and the Vatican. She was also a presenter at the National Smithsonian Folkways Festival and the MSU Folkways Festival.

Catherine Baldwin showcasing her quillwork on birch bark boxes.

In one Leelanau Enterprise article her process for harvesting the materials for the quill boxes is explained:

“Each piece is made of birch bark, porcupine quills and sweetgrass. No glue, tacks or other fasteners are used. ‘We didn’t have glue 100 years ago,’ she said. Each item can take a day or two to harvest, but many boxes can be made from them. One or two porcupines will supply enough quills for about 20 pieces. The bark usually is gathered in late June or early July. Only a small piece of about 3-square-feet is taken from each tree that is judged healthy enough. The bark isn’t taken from around the tree because that would cut off the flow of nutrients and kill it. ‘If we did that, there wouldn’t be any birch trees left,’ Mrs. Baldwin said. Cloth and sand are used to scrub the bark to clean off gum and sap. Finished pieces are stacked flat and bundled until ready to use. Quills usually come from hunters who keep an eye out for porcupines while deer hunting. Not many are needed, and the meat is eaten. The quills are taken from the hides by hand-pulling or with a wool cloth. They are dyed various colors and stored until needed. Sweetgrass, an aromatic grass found along riverbanks, forest edges and grassy hills and fields, is run through boiling water and dried to preserve its scent, which smells like vanilla. The grass is wrapped in cloth until needed, and the scent lasts many years.”

April 3rd, 1997 issue of the Leelanau Enterprise written by Mike Heuer
Catherine Baldwin working on a quill box at the kitchen table in her home in Peshawbestown, photographed by Al Kamuda.

Catherine was committed to sharing her knowledge and skills with new generations passing on the traditions she herself had learned. However today there are fewer Anishinaabe practicing the traditional arts of quillwork-on-birchbark and Black ash basketry. Climate change, loss of habitat, and the devastation of the black and white ash trees by the Emerald Ash Borer beetle have greatly diminished the natural materials needed. Among the Anishinaabek traditional arts are still taught though there are fewer young people involved in learning them. Catherine worked with Curator Laura Quackenbush to plan and implement the LHS’ 1987 Inventory of Ottawa and Chippewa Arts. Today, a legacy of the Inventory can be viewed in the Traditional Anishinaabek Arts Room (TAAR) where 200+ boxes and baskets are on permanent exhibit. Exhibiting, interpreting and preserving the LHS’s Traditional Arts of the Anishinaabek collection is our tribute to Catherine Baldwin and other traditional Anishinaabe artists of this region. We also hope the collection will continue to be an inspiration and example for the next generations. Catherine Baldwin, artist and teacher, walked-on in 2001. Her last work in-hand, an incomplete strawberry quilled box, is on display.

As part of an ongoing series called "Women of Leelanau", the Leelanau Historical Society is dedicated to researching, preserving, and sharing the untold stories of women who's actions, advocacies, words, imagination, and every day lives contributed to the history and culture of the Leelanau Peninsula, MI. Discover more "Women of Leelanau" stories on our blog page.