I hadn’t seen one like this until I went to Scotland. Only at that time did I find out that something like this was made by the [Dene] people. It’s from way back. Even as a young girl I’ve never seen anything like this.
Rosa Mantla, Fort Rae, 2006
“Dene” is an Athapaskan word meaning ‘man’ or ‘people’. The term is often used to designate bands or larger groups and, in the Northwest Territories, includes several regional or cultural groups speaking one of four Athapaskan languages: Chipewyan, Dogrib (Tåîchô), Slavey-Hare, or Gwich’in. Traditionally an extremely mobile people, the Dene moved in concert with the seasons and available resources.
Direct contact with European society first came in the late 1700s as the fur trade moved into Dene territory and new ways and a new economy soon followed. It was the beginning of a long period of change, and it was during this time that the objects in this exhibit were collected. By the late 1800s, traditional hide clothing, technologies and tools were mostly replaced by ones of Euro-Canadian manufacture. Despite these transformations, Dene social structure and oral tradition remained strong and provided a buffer of cultural values and knowledge for dealing with rapid change.
National Museums Scotland, as it exists today, is the result
of a merging of two long-established institutions: the National
Museums of Antiquities of Scotland, founded in 1780, and
the Royal Scottish Museum, originally founded in 1854 as the
Industrial Museum of Scotland. The Industrial Museum had
no major collections but its visionary director, George Wilson,
had a passion for collecting. Through a family link with
George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company,
employees throughout the Canadian north were enlisted in
acquiring “specimens of Indian manufactures.” Many of the
HBC employees were Scots and “patriotically generous” in
their collecting activities. Over the years 1858 to 1862, traders
regularly shipped material from remote company forts in the
Canadian north to the museum in Edinburgh. Over 280
objects were obtained, providing a unique snapshot of Dene
material culture from the mid-nineteenth century, and
creating one of the oldest and most extensive collections of
nineteenth-century Dene artifacts in the world today.
Some of the objects in the collection are models representing
early North West Territory examples of the souvenir
trade.1 This beautiful toboggan, or cariole, was made by a
Chipewyan man likely at the request of the collector. Made
from birch and partially tanned and dried caribou skin it is
approximately a 1:12 scale replica.
Dene women, nevertheless, made most of the objects in
the collection. Using locally available materials, they poured
their creative energy into designing and decorating clothing
and ornamentation to exacting standards of quality and
artisanship. Women placed particular emphasis on the
embellishment of their husbands’ summer clothing, items to
be worn during the season of gatherings. Anthropologist June
Helm notes that, “for many of the finest creations of a ‘bush’
Indian wife, her husband served as a kind of travelling art
gallery. When men went by dog team to the trading fort,
particularly at Christmastime and Eastertime, to trade their
furs, their wives usually stayed behind. But the embroidered
or beaded yoke of her husband’s parka and his decorated
moccasins, newly-made for him to wear at the fort, advertised
a woman’s handiwork from afar.”2
Travellers to the north today often remark on the beautiful
beaded floral designs adorning moccasins and other objects.
Introduced by Grey Nuns at residential schools beginning in
the late 1860s, these floral designs gradually replaced the
geometric patterns used traditionally by the Dene. The NMS
Athapaskan collection spans this important period of change,
and shows that despite the early influence of church schools
on design, the geometric patterns of the Dene design
tradition persisted during the period of collection.
Dene artisans decorated outfits with tremendous skill and
artistry using locally available materials, including porcupine
and bird quills, silverberry seeds, fresh water mollusk shells,
tanned hides, sinew and babiche, and a range of materials
acquired through pre-contact trade networks, such as glass
beads and metal from Siberia and dentalium shells from the
Pacific Coast. Artisans also used natural dyes from berries, ash
of red alder, ochres of various hues and colours, and lichens.
The fur trade brought a multicultural entourage of French
voyageurs, Red River Métis, Eastern Cree and Iroquois, as well
as a new range of trade goods, into Dene territory. The Dene,
ever practical, extended their toolkit with guns, knives and
copper kettles and expanded their artistic palette through the
incorporation of western trade material, such as wool stroud,
calico, vast numbers and types of European glass beads, metal
bangles, silk embroidery thread, and ribbon. They imbued
stylistic influences borrowed from diverse Euro-Canadian and
pan-Native decorative traditions with their own aesthetic
sense, eventually creating what Judy Thompson describes as a
“broad regional style”3
Compare, for instance, the Gwich’in Man’s Summer Tunic and
the Slavey Women’s Dress. Both are festively decorated garments
made from tanned animal skin. The cut and decoration of the
caribou skin Gwich’in tunic follow a distinctive Gwich’in
aesthetic tradition, characterized by its heavily fringed
dropped shoulders and fringed, V-shaped shirttail. The tunic
is decorated around the wrists and chest with an intricate
band of geometrical quillwork consisting of contrasting red,
white and blue colours, and the fringes are lined with
silverberry seeds and black glass beads. Red ochre is traced
over the seams of the tunic, as well as in a thick red vertical
line above the shirttail. Ochre, mixed with grease and painted
on, provided spiritual protection for the wearer at the
clothing’s most vulnerable points. While this traditional style
of garment continued to be produced for trade to collectors
until the end of the nineteenth century, it soon became
outdated and associated with poverty by Dene impressed by
new materials and styles.4
The Slavey dress, meanwhile, reveals the synthesis of Euro-
Canadian, Métis and Dene materials and styles that emerged
in the mid-1800s. Made from thick moose hide, it is heavily
fringed around the chest and back in a style similar to
traditional Dene clothing. However, the cut of the dress,
with an even skirt, high square shoulders, epaulettes, an
open neckline, and buttoned cuffs reflects a Euro-Canadian
influence. The dress is highly decorated and incorporates
various trade materials such as cloth, beads and brass
buttons as well as locally available porcupine quills. At the
same time, the use of contrasting red and black cloth
appliqués offset by small white beads above the fringes
suggests a continued adherence to the aesthetic principles
and colour preferences of older quill and seed decorated
To thrive in the extreme conditions of the subarctic
climate, the Dene had to be flexible and inventive. These
societal values are reflected in their rapid incorporation and
adaptation of new materials and styles brought in with the
fur trade. By 1860, HBC trader Bernard Ross noted that spruce
root basketry was a dying art around Great Slave Lake and
all along the Mackenzie Valley. 5 By acquiring useful trade
items such as metal cooking pots, knives, scissors and steel
needles and by adopting European clothing Dene women
could save themselves countless hours of labour while
extending the stylistic range and decorative variety of
their treasured creations.
Although there were rapid changes to Dene material
culture with the fur trade, some traditional items remained.
There is nothing warmer, for instance, than a pair of caribou
or moose skin boots. Irreplaceable items such as skin
moccasins, similar to those made 150 years ago are still
produced and worn in Dene communities to this day, as are
mitts, snowshoes and canoes which were in turn adopted
and adapted by traders, missionaries and explorers.
Though these objects are from the past they are part
of a cultural continuum, and similar objects and decorative
traditions enliven and enrich Dene life today. As Tåîchô
Grand Chief George Mackenzie noted at the exhibit opening
“these objects show everyday things that people needed to
enjoy daily life in the NWT in the mid-nineteenth century.
However, demonstrating that Dene culture is still vibrant,
many of these objects are still being made by artisans in
our communities today”. 6
Tom Andrews is a Territorial Archaeologist and manager of the NWT
Cultural Places Program with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage
Centre. Clare-Estelle Daitch is an exhibits intern with the PWNHC.
1 For a detailed discussion regarding the phenomenon of models
in the early Native-tourist trade see Ruth B. Phillips, Trading
Identities: The Souvenir Trade in Native North American Art
from the Northeast, 1700-1900. Kingston: McGill/Queen’s
University Press, 1999.
2 June Helm, “Women’s Work, Women’s Art”, in Barbara A. Hail,
and Kate C. Duncan, The Subarctic Collection of the
Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Providence, Rhode
Island: Brown University, 1989, p. 122.
3 Judy Thompson, “No Little Variety of Ornament: Northern
Athapaskan Artistic Traditions,” The Spirit Sings: Artistic
Traditions of Canada’s First People. Toronto: McClelland and
Stewart, 1987, p. 163.
4 Judy Thompson and Ingrid Kritsch, Long Ago Sewing We Will
Remember: The Story of the Gwich’in Traditional Caribou
Skin Clothing Project. Gatineau, Quebec: Canadian Museum
of Civilization Ethnology Paper 143, 2005, p. 20.
5 In Judy Thompson, “No Little Variety of Ornament:
Northern Athapaskan Artistic Traditions,” p. 163.
6 Thomas Andrews, (ed.) Dè T’a Hoti Ts’eeda / We Live Securely
by the Land, Yellowknife: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage
Centre, 2006, p. 2.
A.848.47. 23 x 16.5 cm.
Collected by B.R. Ross, Fort Simpson
All photographs courtesy of the
Trustees of National Museums Scotland