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A Brief History of Dene Crafts

The Athapaskan* women have built a reputation as skilled artisans. Traditionally, they have specialized in the creation of clothing and utility items characterized by floral and geometric designs. Over the centuries, these items have become symbolic of the cultural heritage of the Dene nation.

During pre-contact times, the Athapaskan women utilized natural dyes extracted from leaves, bark, flowers, and lichens to color porcupine quills and hides. Decorative hide fringes were often soaked in colored water before being attached with porcupine quills or bone needles to articles of clothing. While the natural dyes were aesthetically pleasing, they were temporary and washed away.

During the early winter months, caribou and moose grow thick fur coats to protect themselves against dropping temperatures. The Athapaskan women took advantage of this by plucking long guard hairs from the legs and backs of the animals. The collected hairs were then twisted, braided, and used as decorations. When first contact was made with early explorers, fur traders, and missionaries, the women were introduced to new materials such as glass beads, thread, and permanent dyes. These items were welcomed and used alongside traditional materials, such as moose hair, for decorative purposes.

There is evidence to suggest that clerics arrived in Athapaskan camps during the later part of the eighteenth century. By the early 1800s, nuns from Belgium and France had arrived in the Northwest Territories in order to set up schools. Many of these women were interested in cultural aspects of Athapaskan life and were intrigued with Dene clothing and utility items. The nuns taught the Athapaskan women how to flatten quills and use them to weave cloth in a way that gave floral designs a three dimensional look. Most importantly, they introduced aniline dyes as well as wool and cotton threads, all of which were readily adapted.

As craft working relations formed between the native women and nuns, they began developing different methods of dying materials. The nuns first noted that oils in quills, hides, and hair affected the permanency of natural dyes. Experimentation first began with crepe paper dyes, but they had a tendency to fade over time. As methods of removing oils were developed, and the women discovered that aniline based dyes became permanent when painted onto the oil free materials.

During this period, decorative quill work became less popular. The Athapaskan women began to favor embroidery and bead work. One explanation for this shift is that quill work is labor intensive, while the same decorative effects can be achieved in a fraction of the time by way of latter methods. By the 1960s, materials such as commercial braids, bias tape, and a variety of threads made from cotton, wool, and silk had become the most widely accepted materials used for decorative purposes.

* also known as Dene.

Renewed Interest in Dene Crafts

For a time during the mid twentieth century, the production of Dene crafts had decreased in the Northwest Territories. The majority of work was being done by elderly women in Fort Providence, and skills were not being transferred to younger generations. That is until Memoree Philipp, a business woman in the Slavey settlement of Fort Providence, recognized the significance of the work being done by senior women in the community. Ms. Philipp set up a workshop and asked Bella Bonnetrouge to teach young women the skills needed to make Dene clothing and utility items. Many young women began to work with skilled artisans in the community and by the early 1970s, a lucrative cottage craft industry was established in the Slavey settlement.

Dene Crafts and Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Hess

Upon hearing about the cottage industry in the Slavey settlement, Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Hess made arrangements to visit Fort Providence. She examined moose hair tufted items and purchased several pieces for her collection. After returning from the Northwest Territories, Dr. Hess persuaded the National Museum of Man to exhibit Athapaskan works. She also encouraged the Museum to publish a book on the same subject entitled The Athapaskans: Strangers of the North. In 1974, Dr. Hess took another opportunity to publicly display and promote Dene art work when she loaned her collection to the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede to celebrate International Women's Year. The following year, she donated the Dene Crafts collection to Special Collections, University of Calgary. The items are displayed at the University on a permanent basis.

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