Yukon First Nations Arts & Crafts

Posted by Donna Reimchen on

Yukon First Nations have a wealth of diversity in their craft traditions. From intricate beadwork to symbolic carving, each piece is unique and meaningful. We are honoured to share some of the history of these art forms with you.

Slippers & Moccasins

Each First Nation throughout North America has its own variation on the slipper or moccasin. It is common to see beadwork or tufting on the front “vamp” of the slipper. These designs are created by the sewer and are often handed down from one generation to the next.

Beadwork has been a tradition in the north for many generations. Before beads came north along trade routes, dyed porcupine quills were more common as decoration on slippers and other regalia. The trim of the slipper is usually beaver fur, but it can also be the traditionally harvested fur of other northern wildlife.

Traditionally, the hide and fur used in the slipper would be obtained as a by-product of sustenance hunting and then tanned by hand ("home-tanning"). Artists will now use either home or commercial tanned hide, depending on availability and cost. Tanning a moose hide to make it ready for use can take around 24 hours before sewing can begin. Beading the vamp can take 8-10 hours, depending on the complexity of the design. 

See our collection here.

Beading and Sewing

The Western Subarctic has a long tradition of beading and sewing going back to the last Ice Age. The harsh winters led to a transient and semi nomadic lifestyle, which in turn led to the decoration of personal and practical items being the main form of artistic expression.

Being competent in your ability to create clothing has remained an important part of northern culture. This tradition of creation continues with one generation teaching the next the skill of embellishing caribou or moose hide with porcupine quills and beads. The tufting and embroidering of moose hair is also common on clothing and regalia.

Western Subarctic beading is generally floral by design and balance of colour and form are important factors in this craft. 

In the modern Yukon, these practices are used to make all manner of decorative and practical items such as card holders, scissor cases, moccasins, mitts, and ceremonial regalia.

Carving

The Northwest Coast style of carving came to the Yukon through the Tlingit First Nation. The Inland Tlingit migrated from the Alaskan coast along the Taku River. First, into Northern British Columbia (Taku River Tlingit), where most now reside in Atlin. Then into the interior plains of the Yukon (Teslin Tlingit Council) in the early 1800s, where most now reside in Teslin.

Over the decades, the use of wood as an artistic or decorative medium gradually became more common. Due to the trees of the boreal forest being thinner than those on the coast, carvers have also often used caribou and moose antlers as the basis for their work. The traditional use of birch bark as a medium for both creative and practical endeavours also continues as it has for hundreds of years.

Currently, many young Yukon artists gain inspiration and knowledge from each other as well as from the various rich indigenous cultures within the Yukon. These traditional practices have become intertwined with personal creativity and expression to form a unique continuation of the Yukon First Nation story.

Mitts, Hats, and Mukluks

Dance, story telling and celebration are important elements within Tlingit culture. Therefore, the creation of regalia (embellished clothing worn for ceremonial occasions) goes hand in hand with cultural practices.

Tlingit are a matrilineal nation, divided into moieties, or kinship groups. These groups consist of various clans. Social relations rest on reciprocal obligations between the opposite clans. These obligations are often played out during marriages or deaths at potlatches where symbolic visual display on clothing is as important as the rich oratory culture.

These traditions have influenced the decoration of more practical clothing, especially winter wear. With winters dipping to -40°C, dressing warmly is important.

Respectful hunting practice is also very important to Yukon First Nation culture Each part of a harvested animal is put to use. The fur and hides from sustenance hunting are traditionally used to create elegant and practical clothing that will keep you warm on a chilly Yukon night.

See our collection here.


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