About

Birch has a very mystical role in Mi’kmaq traditions showing its natural power through the ancient stories of the oral traditions of the Mi’kmaq people. One origin story describes an ugly looking young woman being an outcast and searching for the fabled invisible hunter. She finally finds this hunter and gets married to him wearing a dress made out of birch bark and then, after the ceremony she removes the birch bark dress to reveal beautiful skin and became the new beautiful woman in the village.

Maskwiomin is a natural skincare product from birch bark.

Check out our story in the Cape Breton Post/ Saltwire newspaper: https://tinyurl.com/2ztehdeu

"New Cape Breton skincare company harnesses power of birch bark"

 

Maskwiomin was an almost lost Mi’kmaq knowledge as only two Elders in the First Nation community of Membertou in Sydney, Nova Scotia, remembered a story from the 1920-ies. The story was about a mother with a newborn baby who would not nurse due to a skin outbreak on the mother’s chest. This could have been very dangerous for the health and life of the newborn as nutritious baby formula was not available. The Mi’kmaq midwife prepared a maskwiomin ointment and applied it to the chest with baby surviving.

Over 25 years ago, Tuma Young pieced together the stories of maskwiomin and how the birch bark extract is produced in the traditional Mi’kmaq way. 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 ethnobotanist Tuma collected hundreds of medicinal plant stories and recipes in order to preserve Mi’kmaw knowledge as Elders and Knowledge Holders are passing on.

The birch bark extract of maskwiomin is made in a labour intensive and lengthy campfire method where the extract is generated inside a can in the fire. Once the fire is out, the thick, viscous, black concentrated bark extract is obtained and can be used to make creams, lotions and soap products. 

Tuma Young, QC is a Mi’kmaw ethnobotantist and lawyer working at Cape Breton University, Sydney, Nova Scotia as the Director of the Donald Marshal Jr. Mi’kmaq Legal Institute and teaching Mi’kmaw Studies courses. Dr. Matthias Bierenstiel is a Professor of Chemistry in the Chemistry Department at Cape Breton University and joined Tuma with his chemistry expertise almost 10 years ago on the birch bark project. They received to date 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 largest 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 show the community of Membertou to make maskwiomin the traditional way and once they used their homemade soaps and creams they saw how great of a skin remedy it is and wanted more and more products. This demand prompted Tuma Young and Matthias Bierenstiel to found Maskwiomin company in 2020, during the Covid 19 pandemic, and pursue the mission of ethical commercialization of traditional Mi’kmaq knowledge as community members and Elders stated that the community needs to benefit. Maskwiomin is now working closely with Membertou First Nation and Membertou Corporate to being a major partner in Maskwiomin.

Dr. Bierenstiel as chemist developed a new proprietary extractor technology that mimics the conditions in a campfire. This new technology 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. The company was first run out of the garage and homes of the co-founders until moving into their first commercial space in downtown Sydney, Nova Scotia in 2021.

Maskwiomin is licensed by Health Canada for cosmetics skincare products. However, it is the goal of the health research project to have this traditional Mi’kmaq knowledge recognized as a natural health product. The research produced already interesting preliminary results indicating a variety of medicinal properties such as broadspectrum antibiotic. Currently, the research team is partnered with other researchers to explore antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and anti-itch properties that maskwiomin might have.