Art of the Gwich'in
The Gwich'in are renowned beaders and sewers. Traditional clothing is made mostly from tanned caribou hide and sometimes moose. Skin preparation is a lengthy process. First the flesh and hair are scraped from the hides. Then they are repeatedly washed and soaked in a solution that includes caribou or moose brains, which softens the leather and makes it pliable. Between washings, the skin is wrung out and stretched which also helps to soften it. Finally, the hide is slowly smoked over a fire that preserves it and gives a distinctive soft brown colour and warm, smoky smell.
Before European traders introduced glass beads, clothing was decorated with dyed porcupine quills. Sometimes, shells were obtained through trade and strung into necklaces or used to adorn clothing.
When beads became available as trade items, Gwich'in women incorporated them into traditional patterns and made beautiful new ones. The beads are often sewn to a fabric backing such as felt before being stitched onto the garment itself.
These garments are highly prized and worn at special events such as gatherings and weddings.
Ellen Bruce tanning hides. Note the wash tubs for soaking and washing. There is a hide in the process of being wrung out on the right of the photo.
VG, Diquemare Collection
Below are many fine examples of Gwich'in art and handicrafts from the personal collection of Beth-Ann Exham
Joe Kyikavichik, known as "Big Joe" (1880-1972). Joe was a catechist for fifty years before he was ordained in 1970 at the age of ninety. When his eyes began to fail in 1965 he taught his daughter, Ellen Bruce, to read in Takudh language in order that the sacred language could continue to be used in church. His long years of ministry took him to his people's fish and hunting camps
and red chevron shaped beadwork on white felt background. Above this is green and gold rickrack on maroon and white cloth. Green and blue tassels at the top
Ladies hat made from animal fur, perhaps caribou, with approximately 5 cm in width trim of possibly rabbit, accenting the facial side. A hide fringe decorates the neckline of the hat. Ear-like fur protrusions with beads and blue and pink tassels extend down the back of the hat.
Made by Martha Thomas.