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
This fine vestment was made for Rev. Kenah Exham by the women of Old Crow.
White hide with floral pattern on the front of the purse in blue, pink, yellow, and green beads - flower with leaves. Purse has zipper closure. Bleached hide fringe surrounds the three sides of the purse on the front and back. Back has no adornment. There is also a small cross in beadwork on the purse strap.
Men's snowshoes constructed of wood and babiche made for Kenah Exham by catechist Joe Kyikavichik in 1968 or 1969. 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
Men's mukluks with hide soles and caribou fur uppers. Green and red trim accent where soles and uppers are sewn together. Brown fur, possibly wolverine, decorate the uppers above which are 3 rows of decorative ribbon with alternating rows of red and yellow rickrack. Uppers have zippers on the inseam to allow ease in pulling on the mukluks. Red wool tab on the zippers. Hide lacing at ankles.
Men's mukluks with hide soles and cloth uppers. The uppers are red and blue cloth with white/green striped decorative ribbon on the front and sides. Maroon, green, and silver/yellow ric-rac accent where the soles and uppers are sewn together. The uppers are decorated with brown fur, possibly wolverine or caribou above which is a row of green 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 mukluks with hide soles and cloth uppers. The uppers are a blue silk material. Green, red, and yellow rick-rack accent where the soles and uppers are sewn together. The top of the feet are made from a blue felt. The uppers are decorated with white rabbit fur and decorative ribbon with alternating rows of rickrack on a red cloth.
Lady's Balaclava Style Hat 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.
Lady’s mukluks with hide soles and cloth uppers. The uppers are navy blue. Red, green and yellow rickrack accents where the sole and uppers are sewn together. Diamond shaped bead and leaf pattern on the foot. The uppers are decorated with white rabbit fur above which is a row of floral pattern beadwork in blue, red, yellow on an alternating background of white and blue beads.