An Ongoing Exploration: Getting to Know Red Ochre

iron seep 3 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

A very significant cultural component: ritual adornment, mortuary practice, healing properties, ornamentation… the importance of red ochre to the Abenaki, and to many indigenous cultures, cannot be overemphasized. The word  in Aln8baiwi is olamanjagw, red ochre mud; when mixed with grease,  it is simply olaman. In Anishinaabemowin, the word is very similar: onaman. Ochre is derived from natural iron oxide compounds, in mineral deposits, clay, or iron seeps , where iron oxidizing bacteria augment the chemical conversion.

iron ochre names royal society of canada 1885

Publication of Royal Society of Canada, 1885.

Local people sought nearby sources of this valuable material; if they were not fortunate in this respect, they were obliged to trade for it. Here in Sokwakik there is an abundance of iron in the local geology. An iron seep just north of Wantastegok yields an abundant flow of ferrous oxide mud, carried with the groundwater through a mineral-rich ledge of Waits River schist and emerging on the east face. In the summer, the iron-oxidizing bacteria colonies form amazing cellular structures. In the winter, these lose their shape and form a hard, crumbly crust. The pigmented mud accumulates in the crevices of the rock and can be collected simply, with a little careful examination of the best pockets.

The seep in summer.

The seep in winter

By collecting this dark red-brown mud, heating (oxidizing) ’til it reached its maximum color (too much heat will result in a darker, browner hue), and then sifting it, I  was able to produce a nice amount of orange/dark red/brown pigment on an initial trial. This could be further pulverized with a mortar and pestle, before mixing with a grease or oil and used for painting the body, or another use.

More to come…

 

 

Red Paint, Red Ochre

iron seep 1 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

iron seep 2 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

iron seep 3 rt 30 brattleboro 2019

Iron-oxidizing bacteria feed on dissolved ferrous solutions in groundwater at the point where it emerges back into the atmosphere. There it may form deposits of ferrous oxide which can be collected and converted into yellow or red ochre pigments. This is also a historical source of what is known as bog iron.

These pigments are an important resource for many indigenous cultures, including the Wabanakiak. Ochre is a strong, persistent pigment that can last for thousands of years and has many practical and ceremonial uses. At times, the trickling iron-rich water will create intricate, organic cell-like patterns on rock or soil as the molecules aggregate. Sometimes it’s just a rainbow shimmer on the water surface.