It wasn’t easy to find porcupine quills
unless I found road kill
in northern Wisconsin, my old stomping grounds,
where I grew up.
I kept an empty box in the trunk of my Chevy Impala,
always on the lookout for porcupine.
In 1981, my parents called to say they risked their lives
on a curve on country trunk highway “T”;
I couldn’t wait to see this granddaddy of porcupines
(their words to describe him).
They boxed him up for me, and left him behind
their cabin, deep in the Wascott woods.
On the drive north from the Twin Cities,
I planned my harvest: leather gloves,
thick towels, an old ice cream pail and a strong
stomach for a smell
I’d almost grown used to…
Never a hunter, I was a gatherer:
The American Indian Center in Minneapolis traded me
seed beads for quills.
In those days, I was a rock singer,
making my own quill and peyote-stitch earrings.
My parents had found the granddaddy
with the finest thickest quills I’d ever seen.
I threw a towel on his big body and pressed down
wearing my leather gloves to harvest his quills
by pulling the towel up;
then towels would be stashed in a plastic bag
to prevent quill-poking accidents;
then I gave porcupine a proper burial.
Granddaddy easily gave me a thousand gifts.
I heard how the Anishinabe used pliant bark-paddles
tapping porcupine’s back as he’d run away.
I heard some leave the barb on the quill
so it will penetrate
and not release from the bark when making
No, I never wanted to chase a porcupine:
Tony’s dogs in Porcupine, South Dakota,
had quills stuck clear through their snout.
Quills were real protection,
shot at predators like bullets.
Cleaning quills was the real trick
not getting stuck by the small sharp hooked barb
at the end of each quill;
I never went to an emergency room
though I got stuck plenty of times.
I pulled the barb out of my fingertips myself
and applied rubbing alcohol to my poked pads.
After I soaked the quills in water, I’d wipe them off
and clip off both ends with scissors,
sorting them into bags of lengths and thickness.
In the summer of 1983, a young bull-rider
brought me a traffic casualty so I could make him
a necklace of porcupine claws;
I was working with Craig at the Heart Six Dude Ranch
in Moran, Wyoming; he wore my necklace for protection
on dangerous rodeo bulls.
In the 90s, I sat in awe in the kitchen
of a Lakota quill artist in Pine Ridge
and watched as she’d soak the quill in her mouth
to soften it, then with grace she’d bend them
around metal hoops creating medicine wheels
from quills she’d dyed yellow, black, red and white,
colors of the four directions.
One of her medicine wheels hangs in my car
to protect me.
On a road trip in 2006,
I bought a small quilled birch bark basket in Ontario;
I would honor porcupine in my home
with this hand-crafted beauty by
talented Ojibwe quill artist Darlene Whitehead-Stevens.
I filled my little lidded basket with cedar and sage,
to attract good spirits and to honor porcupine
for his gift of protection.
Today there’s a plastic tub filled with porcupine quills
in the back of my closet, stored with my bead supply.
Some quills are from granddaddy porcupine.
I’d never waste a gift so sacred. © 2011
From SLEEPS WITH KNIVES by Laramie Harlow