The Woodlands Indians comprised the many tribes inhabiting the vast area extending from Ontario and Minnesota eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. The Ojibwa Indians, an Algonquian-speaking Woodlands people, originally lived at the east end of Lake Superior. During the fur trade, they moved north- and westward until they had spread over the largest geographic area occupied by one tribal group in North America. During the 19th century, in this country they gradually ceded most of their land in treaties with the government and settled on numerous reservations, principally in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
White birchbark has been a vital resource for the Woodlands Indians for centuries. The bark of the common birch tree played a major role in everyday life of the tribes of the vast Woodlands area. The bark products of the Ojibwa and other Algonquian-speaking people of the Great Lakes area included large items such as canoes and mats for covering wigwams, and smaller objects such as dishes, cookware, and religious scrolls. Even the most basic utensil made of birchbark was artistic in concept, and its design and decoration were considered an integral part of the creation. Most completed birchbark crafts are not white but rather a golden brown. The inner side of the bark is placed on the outside of the item, for it is smoother and more attractive to the eye. (The white side tends to be lightly rough.) This reversal also provides longer life.
Although many traditional birchbark articles in Ojibwa culture were gradually replaced by those of European American manufacture (oil cans, for example, replaced bark receptacles to collect maple sap) many Ojibwa continue to perpetuate the birchbark crafts of their ancestors. At the 1981 Festival, Ojibwa participants demonstrated the construction of the wigwam, canoe, and food vessels made of bark.