The art of decorating clothing has deep roots in the history of Yukon First Nations people. The practice of making, gifting and wearing these pieces connects them to their families, their stories, and their culture.
In long ago times, they used items harvested from the land, such as bone, shell, silver willow seeds and porcupine quills that were coloured using natural dyes.
When non-Indigenous traders came into the Yukon region they brought manufactured items such as knives, kettles, and coloured glass beads.
The arrival of mass-produced beads meant it took less work to create the designs. It also gave them more choice in colour and more flexibility in patterns because beads could be easily placed to create curved lines and circles. These beads became a common feature of clothing and regalia.
Artists crafted pieces specifically for family members to mark a special event or rite of passage. For example, when a girl grew into a woman, she might be gifted a beaded puberty hood. And when she had a baby, she might be gifted a beaded baby belt. They were also used to demonstrate status or wealth.
Sometimes, when Elders examine a piece of beadwork, they can remember the stories, songs or family memories associated with it. The beadwork “…seemed to be a way of capturing the memories or spirit of ancient times,” wrote Tlingit researcher Ingrid Johnson in her study of Southern Yukon beadwork traditions.
The process of decorating an item with beads is slow and deliberate work. It takes patience and attention to detail, as each individual bead is picked up on a thin needle and hand-sewn into its place. Doing it well takes practice and expertise. Intricate items can take weeks or months to complete.
Traditionally, working with beads was a skill passed down through families, from one woman to another. Many sewers have fond memories of learning to bead while spending long hours watching their mothers, grandmothers or aunts work with a rainbow of beads spread out beside them. With generally only women taking part in sewing and beading, it was also a time for women to come together to share knowledge and stories.
Traditionally, beading is done by women. Creating adorned clothing is a way for women to connect to their families and honour their history, but it was also a way to keep their families fed.
At times when jobs for men were scarce, women could contribute to supporting the family by creating and selling their beaded artwork.
Today, beadwork continues to be a vibrant cultural practice in Yukon, with local artists gaining recognition for their creativity and craftsmanship, and commanding increasingly higher prices for their work.
Each Yukon First Nations cultural group, each family, and even each beader has their own designs that are passed down through generations. But some central themes can be identified in beaders who follow their regional traditions.
For example, a distinctive feature of Gwitch’in beadwork is colourful flowers and leaves with few or no stems. These designs cover much of the working surface, leaving little or no background showing. Traditional Kaska beadwork generally has a stem growing up from the bottom of the piece, ending in a central curving four-petal flower. And Tlingit styles use scroll motifs that curve through the negative unbeaded space in the design.
Commercial patterns – for example, a flowered curtain spotted in an Eaton’s catalog – also crept in to inspire beadwork designs. As entrepreneurial artists began making beaded pieces to sell, the designs became less personal to the artist and more widely appealing.
When more and more non-Indigenous people came into Yukon following the Second World War and the construction of the Alaska Highway, artists designed items to specifically appeal to these travellers. For example, artists began beading the word “Yukon” or the Yukon crest, and northern plants and animals, such as eagles or moose.
Today, Yukon artists are creating new and modern approaches to the traditional artform. Along with moccasins and gauntlets they’re also making more modern functional pieces, such as keychains, computer sleeves and cellphone holders.
Artists are also borrowing techniques from other types of sewing. For example, it’s becoming more common to see fully beaded images that depict a scene, rather than one central figure on a plain background. And it’s become delightfully common to see beaded depictions of pop culture characters, such as Pokémon or Yoda.
There are a couple of theories as to why floral patterns are by far the most common seen on Yukon First Nations beadwork.
For nearly 70 years between 1882 and 1951, potlatches were banned in Canada and that meant using any symbolism associated with the potlatch could be dangerous. This may be one of the reasons that flowers – both ubiquitous and non-threatening – became commonplace in beadwork design.
It’s also believed that like the beads, the floral designs were imported from outside Yukon. Christian nuns stationed in Northwest Canada in the early 1800s taught Métis children how to embroider delicate flower patterns that were popular in European textiles at the time. These children took that knowledge and used it in their traditional garments. As they travelled and traded with other Indigenous groups, their work influenced the spread of floral designs throughout Northwest Canada.
Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association
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