Transforming porcupine quills into art in northern Minnesota

Leech Lake reservation artist Mel Losh, 66, makes bandolier bags and birch bark boxes; the bags have designs made with beads and his box illustrations are made from porcupine quills.  (MPR photo/Dan Olson)

Ojibwe artist Mel Losh doesn’t willingly puncture himself with porcupine quills. It comes with the territory as he makes birch bark boxes adorned with patterns. Losh, who lives near Bena in northern Minnesota on the Leech Lake reservation, creates art pieces from the barbed, needle-like animal hair.  I’ll profile Mel in a Minnesota Sounds and Voices report today on All Things Considered.

When I called Mel for directions to his home he said, “take a right at the store and then about half a mile to the big pine tree… you can’t miss it.”   Don’t exactly need GPS to find folks in a town of about 100 people.  Mel was born and raised on the Leech Lake reservation.  Lots of American Indian artists, including Mel, try their hand at bead work.

Forty years ago at a Michigan pow wow, Mel says he learned how to adorn birch bark boxes with porcupine quills, a craft and art form not widely practiced.  He’s become a master.  Here are some photos of his pieces at the Minnesota  Historical Society.

And here’s a nifty video courtesy of the fine people at All My Relations Art in Minneapolis where some of Mel’s art has been displayed.

Soak in those images because for the most part, Mel’s pieces are in private collections around the world and likely won’t be seen again by the public.

More worrisome is that at the moment, Mel doesn’t have any students learning how to work with quills, a traditional art he says is worth preserving.

  • Jennifer Mortensen Parkhurst

    Thanks for the story. I would love to meet Mel, learn the art and help carry on the tradition! BTW, my ancestry is part Native American.