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Salisbury Report: Tracing Regimes of Value in the Mackenzie Basin

By Abra Wenzel, Carleton University (Winner of the 2019 Salisbury Award)

My interest in Indigenous women textile artists in the Great Slave Lake region of the Northwest Territories (NWT) began in 2015. At the time I was an M.A. student at the University of Victoria and my research focused on a collection of objects made by students at the Fort Providence Indian Residential School (IRS). This collection, called the Grey Nuns Collection, had been repatriated in the early 2000s from the Grey Nuns of Montréal, who had staffed the Fort Providence and other NWT IRS, to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, NWT.

A part of my Master’s project was documenting and adding provenance to various pieces in the collection, which included a range of arts and crafts, from moccasins and gauntlet gloves to paintings and toys.  One particular decorative artform, moose and caribou hair tufting, caught my eye. The majority of hide and cloth items were embellished with beadwork, and sometimes with porcupine quill and cotton thread embroidery.  Hair tufting stood out not only because this style is in relief but also because it was relatively unique in its use of traditional materials to create flowers and other motifs. Indeed, as I learned, the process of creating hair tufted decorations is time-consuming and difficult to master.  It also has an unusual cultural history in terms of its spread, and its special value and salience to the women who continue it today.

Moose hair tufting originated as a new decorative technique in 1916 through three Métis women: Catherine/Katherine (Beaulieu) Bouvier, Madeline Bouvier (both of Fort Providence), and Madeline Bouvier’s daughter Celine Lafferty, who then taught this unique art form to Sister Béatrice Leduc of the Grey Nuns. Leduc continued to teach it in various Indian Residential Schools in the Northwest Territories and is credited with aiding in the diffusion of tufting across the North (Dubin 2014; Racette 2001). Many of the pieces in the collection were made by students or local women to be sold in order to raise funds for the school. Today, tufting is a decorative technique that is often incorporated into Indigenous clothing and household items (Malbeuf 2016).

With the support of the Richard F. Salisbury Award, as well as a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship, I have spent parts of two years (COVID-19 curtailed my visiting) travelling to communities in the Mackenzie Valley interviewing Dene, Métis and Inuvialuit artists who continue to practice moose and caribou hair tufting in sites ranging from kitchens to commercial galleries to the Great North Arts Festival (GNAF).  I have also supplemented my field program by locating and documenting small collections of tufted hair objects in several museums across Canada, and through the Grey Nun’s Montréal archive I have investigated the connection between Sister Leduc and Indigenous arts and crafts in a number of NWT residential schools. This multi-sited approach has been invaluable towards revealing a history of Indigenous making and economics that has gone largely unrecognized within Canadian narratives.

History

The technique was invented as a direct response to a shortage of beads and silk during World War I, and its inspiration is drawn from wool punch work (Hail and Duncan 1989; Racette 2001). While a relatively recent method of embroidery, tufting is very much a traditional Métis artform that has since been taken up by Dene and even Inuvialuit artists. The artists begin by gathering naturally or artificially dyed moose or caribou hairs into discrete sections. The hairs are twisted and knotted, and then trimmed with scissors to create patterns in relief (Malbeuf 2016). Designs include elaborate floral motifs, animals and landscape images.  Moose and caribou tufting decorated clothing such as moccasins, and during the IRS period was frequently applied to home décor such as pillows and picture frames (Image 1).

Image 1. Moose hair tufted pillow. Grey Nuns Collections. Prince of Wales Northern heritage Centre. Item # 2001.29.125.

            Moose and caribou hair tufting is a demanding artform, both in terms of skill and time, and as a result it was, and is, a specialized form with relatively few makers. However, it is still an important contemporary artform among a number of Mackenzie Basin textile artists. Tufting’s history, specialness, and the fact that its origins lie in Métis culture, itself generally underrepresented in the culture history of the NWT, influenced me to construct my doctoral project as an exploration of the materiality of tufting with a focus on the role of Indigenous makers in their communities and on how tufting, as an Indigenous artform, is perceived outside the North.

Fieldwork

             Studies of Canadian Indigenous material cultures typically center on the objects’ physical properties and technical attributes while overlooking their social histories. Nowhere is such an analytic more limiting than with Indigenous women’s textiles made and advertised as souvenir art. The commoditization and consumption of these textiles through settler society markets has resulted in their categorization as inauthentic Aboriginal art (Phillips 2002). Thus, Indigenous women’s artworks, which are visual-tactile texts that reveal a history of inter-cultural negotiation and mediation (Phillips 2006), remains remain underrecognized and decontextualized in the museums across Canada where they are located today.

The central objective of my doctoral research has been to explicate how the “entanglements” that form between makers, places, materials, and things (Ingold 2011) are essential to cultural recognition. I examine Dene, Inuvialuit, and Métis women’s roles in the Indigenous historiography and ethno-history of the Northwest Territories, and especially in the formation of contemporary Indigenous identity. This research has examined the cultural and historical salience of Indigenous women’s handcrafting and the key role it played, and still plays, in Indigenous culture and society in the Mackenzie Basin.

            Artists’ stories further uncover these histories. Three central arguments have emerged from my conversations with tufters. The first is the importance of women’s making within communities and their constant reimagining of materials, motifs, and ideas through various stages of contact. To date, their artistry illustrates culture, kinship, and cosmology.

This draws me to my second assertion that women used their art to support their families and communities through the tourism industry. Since the early fur trade, Indigenous arts have been a marketable item important for supplementing household incomes (Gray 2017). However, the commodification of textile arts within the tourism industry historically inscribed these objects as images of ‘otherness’ (Phillips 1998) and relegated to the category of souvenir crafts. Consequently, women’s names and their roles have continuously been silenced. This ‘otherness’ and silencing become further perpetuated within institutions such as museums, perpetuating and maintaining this notion of textiles as a lesser art.

            Third and finally, many of the artists I spoke to expressed that while the exchange value of their works is important, it is not central to deeper-held cultural values. To date, textiles continue to be defined by the market (Myers 2001). However, their market value does not simply do away with the various meanings artists attach to their works. Rather, their making and selling is a “connective process that fosters social, spatial, cultural, spiritual, and temporal connections” (Gray 2017). Indigenous artists in the Basin, including tufters, have been slowly removing themselves from tourism-based institutions such as galleries, and are taking charge over their own marketability in a way that seeks to recognize important cultural values. One commercially successful tufting artist who specializes in jewelry making whom I spoke said:

      I decided my philosophy is to do only fine jewelry and to put my prices high. But I still consider them low, so that the higher I can go the more people [other Indigenous artists] can price it higher themselves or I can hire people so that they are paid fairly. It’s very interesting because one pair of my earrings could be sold for the same price as someone’s fully beaded moccasins and it’s like trying to get people [artists] to see that and see the value of artwork.     

Her words show the economic importance of selling, but she also emphasizes that there is an equal if not greater value that centers on the making community.

            The onset of COVID has forced a delay in the next phase of my research in the NWT. However, even with the interruption of my fieldwork by COVID-19, I have been able to communicate with artists who have transitioned to online platforms. Further, this drastic shift has positively resulted in a new venue for knowledge sharing and community building amongst artists and consumers. Their move to social media has created and fostered a new space for artists to share their work and knowledge. Finally, social media platforms have become a space for artists to be agentive over self-representation as it has enabled members of a typically geographically far-flung community to meet and encourage each other. The move to social media during the pandemic has also seen the growth and support of a larger Indigenous consumer base that appreciates the cultural values that these makers attach to their art (Gray 2017). 

References:

Dubin, Lois S.

2014    Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork. Los Angeles: Autry National Center of the American West.

Gray, Malinda J.

2017    Beads: Symbols of Indigenous Cultural Resilience and Value. MA dissertation. University of Toronto.

Hail, Barbara A. and Kate C. Duncan

1989.   Out of the North: The Subarctic Collection of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Bristol: Brown University.

Ingold, Tim    

2011    Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Malbeuf, Amy

            2016.   Apihkêw (s/he braids, s/he weaves, s/he knits). MFA dissertation. University of British Columbia.

Myers, Fred

            2001    “Introduction” in The Empire of Things: Regimes of Value and Material Culture, edited by Fred Myers, 3-64. Sante Fe: School of American Research Press.  

Phillips, Ruth B.

1998    Trading Identities: the Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

2002    “A Proper Place for Art or the Proper Arts of Place: Native North American Objects and the Hierarchies of Art, Craft, and Souvenir” in On Aboriginal Representation in the Gallery. Edited by Lynda Jessup and Shannon Bagg, 45-72. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization.

            2006    “Nuns, Ladies and the ‘Queen of the Hurons’: souvenir art and the negotiation of North American Identities” in Local/Global: Women Artists in the Nineteenth Century. Edited by Deborah Cherry and Janice Helland, 155-179. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Racette, Sherry F.

2001    Beads, Silk, and Quills: The Clothing and Decoartive Arts of the Métis. In Métis Legacy: A Métis Historiography and Annotated Bibliography. Leah Dorion, Lawrence J. Barkwell, and Darren R. Préfontaine, eds. Pp. 181-187. Winnipeg: Pemmican Publishing. 2005.   “Sewing For a Living: The Commodification of Métis Women’s Artistic Production”. In Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada’s Colonial Past, edited by Katie Pickles and Myra Rutherdale,17-46. Vancouver: UBC Press.

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