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Clothing Project

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Gwich'in Traditional Caribou Skin Clothing

The Gwich'in are greatly interested in materials that were collected in earlier times and are now housed throughout the world in museums, archives and private collections. These items represent a bygone era, and have great historical, cultural and sometimes spiritual meaning. Of particular interest is traditional Gwich'in clothing made of white caribou hides. Sewn with sinew, and decorated with porcupine quills, trade beads, silverberry seeds, fringes and ochre, they are distinctively styled and striking to look at. These garments are a testament to Gwich'in women's great skill and artistic expression.


Seamstresses, PWNHC and GSCI staff, and visitors at the Yellowknife traditional clothing workshop, December 2000. Back: Audrey Snowshoe, Chief Charlie Furlong (Aklavik), Fred Carmichael (President, Gwich'in Tribal Council), Chief Peter Ross (Tsiigehtchic), Chief Abe Wilson (Fort McPherson). Middle: Agnes Mitchell, Mary Blake, Karen Wright-Fraser, Maureen Clark, Rita Carpenter, Ingrid Kritsch, Ida Stewart. Seated: Elizabeth Colin, Lillian Wright, Rosie Firth. Seated on the floor: Joanne Bird. Photo credit: Tom Andrews, PWNHC.

It has been well over one hundred years since Gwich'in traditional caribou skin clothing was made, and there are no examples of this clothing in either the Gwich'in communities or the Northwest Territories today.


Charles (Chas) Saddington, Brandon Albert, Adolphus Lennie, Ryan Moore and Ryan Vittrekwa modelling the replicated traditional caribou skin clothing at the unveiling ceremony at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife on March 28, 2003. Photo credit: Tom Andrews.

From December 2000 - March 2003, the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute worked in partnership with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, to create five replicas of a 19th-century Gwich'in man's summer outfit from the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The project gave us an opportunity to document, understand and appreciate how this clothing was manufactured. It has also helped to repatriate skills and knowledge no longer practiced in the Gwich'in Settlement Area.

Forty-two seamstresses from the four Gwich'in communities of Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic, plus Yellowknife worked on the project. Replicating each outfit entailed several hundred hours of sewing in the seamstresses' homes and in a series of 2-7 day workshops. The workshops reintroduced old skills and materials no longer used such as decorating with porcupine quills and silverberry seeds (Eleagnus commutata). They also gave the seamstresses an opportunity to work together cooperatively to solve sewing puzzles, and come to a consensus about decorative expression.


Seamstresses and Gwich’in models during the historic unveiling of the Traditional Caribou Skin Clothing Project at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre on March 28, 2003. (Seamstresses l-r): Maureen Beauchamp, Karen Wright-Fraser, Mavis Clark, Lucy Ann Yakeleya, Emily Francis, Maureen Clark, Mary Andre Stewart, Irene Kendo, Ida Stewart, Elizabeth Colin, Lillian Wright, Karen Colin, Ruth Wright, Audrey Snowshoe. (Models l-r): Adolphus Lennie, Ryan Moore, Ryan Vittrekwa, Charles (Chas) Saddington, Brandon Albert. Photo by the Dept. of Canadian Heritage.

Each replicated outfit is made from 7 caribou skins and sewn with sinew. Silverberry seeds, porcupine quills, beads, wool, embroidery floss and fringes have been used to decorate each garment, with the wool and floss being substitutes for wrapping the fringes with quills. The overall look of each community's outfit is slightly different as the seamstresses from each community decided to use different colours and combinations of quills, beads, wool, and floss.

The outfits are on exhibit in each of the four Gwich'in communities and at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife.

 

 


Agnes Mitchell practicing quill work on caribou hide. Photo credit: Joanne Bird, PWNHC.

Seamstresses who worked on Gwich'in Clothing Project December 2000 - March 2003

Aklavik
Catherine Semple
Audrey Snowshoe
Bella Jean Stewart

Tsiigehtchic
Agnes Mitchell
Maureen Clark
Rita Carpenter
Mary Andre Stewart
Alice Andre
Lisa Andre
Mavis Clark
Bella Norman
Irene Kendo
Joyce Andre
Virginia (Benoit) Cardinal
Rose Clark
Donna Norman
Carol Norwegian
Terry Remy Sawyer
Leslie McCartney
Misty Anderson

Fort McPherson
Rosie Firth
Ida Stewart
Shirley Stewart
Maureen Koe
Martina Norman
Mary J. (Blake) Clark
Elizabeth Colin
Jane Charlie Sr.
Effie Bella Showshoe

Inuvik
Lillian Wright
Ruth Wright
Billie Lennie
Trina Nerysoo
Gail Ann Raddi
Donna Firth

Yellowknife
Karen Wright-Fraser
Cheryl Moore
Karen Colin
Maureen Beauchamp
Patsy Krutko
Emily Francis
Lucy Ann Yakeleya