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.
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.
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.
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 the outfit in the collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.