REKINDLING THE POWER OF BIRCH BARK EXTRACT
THE HISTORY: BIRCH BARK AND INDIGENOUS MEDICINE
The traditional Mi’kmaq skincare remedy known as Maskwiomin is based on the natural power of birch bark. But this knowledge was almost lost to time, as only two Elders in the First Nation community of Membertou in Sydney, Nova Scotia, remembered its origin.
The story begins with a mother suffering from a skin ailment across her chest, making it difficult for her newborn baby to nurse. In hopes of healing the outbreak and helping the baby feed, a Mi’kmaq midwife prepares a Maskwiomin ointment and applies it to the mother’s chest, curing the skin ailment and saving the baby’s life.
Over 25 years ago, Maskwiomin co-founder and Mi'kmaq elder Tuma Young pieced together these lost stories and rediscovered the traditional Mi’kmaq method to extract birch bark's medicinal compounds. Tuma is Mi’kmaq and originally from Malagawatch, a small community at the western shore of the Bras d’or of Unamaki/ Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. As an ethnobotanist, Tuma collected hundreds of medicinal plant stories and recipes to preserve Mi’kmaw knowledge as elders and Knowledge Holders are passing on.
In the Mi'kmaq tradition, making Maskwiomin is a labour-intensive and lengthy process where birch bark's medicinal properties are extracted by gently enveloping it within a specially-made campfire. Once the fire is out, the thick, viscous, black concentrated bark extract is used to make creams, lotions and soap products.
Known for its incredible skin healing properties, birch bark symbolizes transformation in an age-old Mi’kmaq legend. The Mi’kmaq tale is the story of a young woman. Tragically mistreated and burdened with scars, rashes and ill-favoured skin. One day, she meets a mythical hunter known for his strength, charm and nobility. Horrified to have revealed her skin, she disguises herself, wrapped head-to-toe in a coiled, hand-made veil of birch bark. But nothing escapes the discerning hunter, who spies her eyes peering out at him. And what he sees then is only her true beauty, creating a real connection that’s more than skin-deep.
Finally seen for who she truly is, the woman’s deepest pain is healed from the inside out, her dreamlike skin suddenly glowing as her authentic beauty radiates from within.
This story is the purest distillation of our appreciation for this incredible ingredient and its transformative properties. It is our greatest joy to bring this story to new audiences, passed down from oral tradition, now an emblem of the healing power of birch bark.
ABOUT THE FOUNDERS
Tuma Young, QC is a Mi’kmaw ethnobotanist and lawyer teaching Mi’kmaw Studies courses at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia.
Dr. Matthias Bierenstiel is a Professor of Chemistry at Cape Breton University who developed the new proprietary extractor technology that mimics the conditions in a campfire, used to create Maskwiomin formulas.
HOW WE MAKE BIRCH BARK EXTRACT
The birch bark extract is extracted in a labour-intensive and time-consuming campfire method where the substance collects inside a can in the fire. Once the fire is out, the thick, viscous, black concentrated bark extract is collected and used to make creams, ointments and soap products.
THE BIRCH BARK PROJECT
Dr. Bierenstiel joined Tuma with his chemistry expertise almost 10 years ago on The Birch Bark Project. To date, they’ve received more than $1.05 million in health research funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study the health benefits of the birch bark extract. This is currently the most significant health research grant of this kind at Cape Breton University.
The project is built upon the principles of Etuaptmumk—or 2-Eyed Seeing—and balances Mi’kmaq knowledge and science. One pillar is called Awakening of the Knowledge in order to preserve and teach Mi’kmaq knowledge to the next generation.
Tuma Young showed the community of Membertou how to make Maskwiomin the traditional way. Once they used the homemade soaps and creams, they understood the benefits and wanted more of these incredible products.
THE START OF MASKWIOMIN
This demand prompted Tuma Young and Matthias Bierenstiel to found the Maskwiomin company in 2020 and pursue their mission to achieve the ethical commercialization of traditional Mi’kmaq knowledge based on the wishes of community members and elders.
Dr. Bierenstiel’s extractor allows for the first time not only scale-up of the extraction process but also ensures consistent quality assurance for each and every extraction batch, which is the basis of Maskwiomin company.
Maskwiomin started in the co-founders’ garages and homes until they moved into their first commercial space in downtown Sydney, Nova Scotia, in 2021.
Maskwiomin works closely with Membertou First Nation and Membertou Corporate to establish partnerships.
Maskwiomin is licensed under Health Canada for cosmetics and skincare products. However, the health research project aims to have this traditional Mi’kmaq knowledge recognized as a natural health product. The research has already produced interesting preliminary results indicating various medicinal properties, such as broad spectrum antibiotics. Currently, the research team is partnered with other researchers to explore antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-itch properties that Maskwiomin might have.
The Maskwiomin products are registered in Canada with Health Canada under cosmetics regulation and are sold in the United States under FDA cosmetics regulation. The main ingredient (INCI) is Betula papyrifera bark extract. We produce this essential bark extract based on a traditional Mi’kmaq recipe mimicking the original firepit method with our proprietary extraction process ensuring top QA/QC product controls.
The main ingredients for the base creams and soaps are sourced from premium Canadian suppliers with certified cosmetic materials.