Chapter 6 – Artistic Expressions and Entertainment

Clothing, Fashion, and Regalia

Most of the early clothing worn by Yukon Indigenous peoples was made of tanned moose and caribou hides; excellent examples can be seen in the drawings of fur trader Alexander Murray (1910). As McClellan notes, “women tanned skins in slightly different ways from place to place, but the same basic steps were necessary everywhere to make beautiful soft leather” (1987:142; see Tom 1981). Prior to the arrival of newcomers to Yukon, women would use bone, antler, and copper needles and awls to sew the leather into pieces of clothing such as pants, tunic shirts, moccasins, and mittens. Today, many these same traditions and materials continue to be used in modern artwork and body ornamentation. For instance, Nancy Hager creates artwork which includes moose hair tufting, porcupine quilling, and fish scale art (Hager n.d.). She began crafting in the 1970s, after her grandmother taught her to sew and tan moose hide. She also does beadwork, and makes slippers, mukluks, vests, mitts and baby belts (Hager n.d.).

Decorations for clothing have often included many items from the land, such as fur trim, shell beads and buttons, native copper beads, bird feathers, porcupine quills, and buttons made of berry seeds (Hebda et al. 2012; McClellan 1987). For instance, Honigmann notes that Kaska clothing was often decorated with porcupine quills, pieces of moose tripe (intestine), and skin fringes. Fur was used to line items that were worn in winter and items were also woven with goat hair (such as the well-known ceremonial Tlingit Chilkat blankets that were traded inland by Coastal Tlingit peoples) (McClellan 1975:321).

Notable discoveries about clothing worn by Yukon Indigenous peoples before contact with fur traders and missionaries also came from the study of Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį (Long Ago Person Found (see Chapter 2). The clothing items that were found with Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį included a woven spruce-root hat and a robe made of 95 ground squirrel pelts that were sewn together with sinew from moose, mountain goat, and whale (Hebda et al. 2012). Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį’s clothing illustrates the wide area of land he travelled during the course of his life and/or the trade relationships he had.

In contemporary times, as in the past, visual art and performance art have often blended together for Indigenous people of Yukon. For instance, the production of regalia[1] for dance performances is a long and detailed process; people invest their time, energy, and love into the pieces they create. In many cases, designs of clan symbols are created for regalia and then sewn onto clothing, such as the button blankets worn by Tlingit dancers. In the past, as well as the present, people adorn their bodies with tattoos, nose rings, ear plugs, and labrets, and would also paint their faces during ceremonies such as the potlatch (Honigmann 1981).

Tattoos were another popular form of artistic expression in the past and today. For example, in Gwich’in culture “tattooing was applied to the chins of women as a mark of beauty, and to the upper arms and occasionally the cheeks of men as a war honour” (Slobodin 1981:517). Alexander Murray’s fur trade Journal of the Yukon, 1847-48 contains excellent drawings of 19th century Gwich’in men and women with face tattoos and face ornamentation, wearing regalia and daily clothing (1910). Today, tattooing in the form of skin stitching is being revitalized by northern peoples. For instance,  Gwich’in artist Jeneen Frei Njootli has begun practicing this art form and describes it as “a lot like sewing, in that it involves a needle and thread, but it’s actually a form of tattooing – using the needle to thread trails of ink under the skin and form decorative and permanent designs” (Tukker 2016).

Jewellery was made out of quills, beads of dried berries and seeds, and, later, after contact with newcomers, glass and coins. If people were wealthy their jewellery was made of copper and dentalium shells, which were traded inland from the coast (Honigmann 1981; Legros 2007). Sewing and jewellery-making doesn’t end with regalia, however. Today there are many fashion designers who are incorporating traditional styles and motifs with modern high fashion styles.

Sho Sho Esquiro

Sho Sho Esquiro is a fashion designer from Ross River, Yukon with Kaska and Tlingit ancestry (Zotigh 2017). She designs clothing that utilizes materials found in the north including carp leather, seal skin, lynx fur and floral beadwork. Her designs are known for meticulous attention to detail and the mixing of fabric, furs, skins, shells and beadwork. In 2013 Sho Sho’s collection was featured during Haute Couture Fashion Week in New York City. In 2014 she represented Canada at Jessica Mihn Anh’s Fashion Phenomenon on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Some of the awards she has received for her work include 1st Place (Textiles) from The Autry in Los Angeles; 1st Place (Beadwork) at The Eiteljorg in Minneapolis; 1st Place at the Heard Market (Textiles) and the Conrad House Award in Phoenix; and the 2016 Best of Division (Textiles) juried competition and Best in Show (Couture Fashion Competition) at the SWAIA Indian Market in Santa Fe (Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, n.d.).

Tanika Knutson

Jewellery designer, Tanika Knutson is a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in artist, whose “current body of work is influenced by traditional First Nations craft” (Klondike Institute of Art & Culture, 2018). She comments on her work this way, “Through resourcefulness, First Nations transform ordinary things into useful materials, functional objects, and beautiful ornaments. I identify with this evolution of materials as a jeweller, as we also take rough materials and transform them into something precious” (Klondike Institute of Art & Culture, 2018). Her work is highly sought after within the Territory and nationally. She is one of many young talented designers from the Yukon.

Heather Dickson

Fashion designer, Heather Dickson, is of Tlingit (from Carcross Tagish First Nation) and Nuxalk (from Bella Coola) descent. Born and raised in Yukon, Heather received her diploma in Fashion Design in 2010 from the International Arts Institute of Vancouver. Since graduating Dickson has developed her business, Dickson Design, which specializes in the beautifully beaded and highly sought-after “Granny Hanky Headband”. Her website describes Dickson Designs as, “a harmony between Traditional & Modern Northern First Nations Fashion” (Dickson Designs 2019). In 2015, she won the Best Up and Coming Visual Artist award at the Adäka Cultural Festival.

  1. Traditional and often sacred clothing, accessories and artifacts worn or carried during ceremonies.


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ECHO: Ethnographic, Cultural and Historical Overview of Yukon's First Peoples Copyright © 2020 by Victoria Elena Castillo; Christine Schreyer; and Tosh Southwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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