Fish are a traditional staple in many Yukon First Nations cultures, so it’s not surprising that the skin and scales are used in their art.
In the Indigenous worldview, it is important to use all parts of the animal and not let anything go to waste. So, fishers will catch what they need, eat the meat, and use the scales for making art to honour their connection to the natural world.
Artworks are made by carefully cleaning and dyeing scales through a process that takes several days. Then, each individual scale is glued each onto a backing like cloth, hide or special heavy paper. Sometimes scales are glued to each other to create three-dimensional pieces.
It’s delicate, fine work that takes patience and care.
Many artists use white fish scales. Some use salmon, trout or char. Scales are scraped off fish the fish and can be used right away or frozen to be used later.
Once removed from the skin, the scales are cleaned by gently scrubbing them with soap and water. Then, they have to be separated and laid out on a screen to dry without touching so they don’t stick together, get mouldy or retain a fishy smell. It can take up to two days for them to fully dry.
Scales vary in colour—some scales are white and grey with black tips. Some scales are nearly transparent. Each scale has unique patterns and textures.
The scales are soaked in boiling water containing dye. Some artists use natural dyes, such as beets, blueberries or walnuts, and some choose to use commercial dyes to colour the scales. Some have even used the brightly coloured paint from a bingo dabber.
Generally, the natural dyes give the scales softer colour while the synthetic ones can result in more vibrant hues.
Dye affects scales differently, depending on the type of scale and how well it has been cleaned. The dying process is quick because the scales easily soak up the colour.
After the scales are dyed, they’re pulled apart using tweezers, and then individually laid out on a towel to dry. It’s tedious work. If they’re not pulled apart the dye will settle into the scales and cause inconsistency in the colours.
Artists dampen scales with water to make them more malleable. Then, using their fingers, they manipulate the scales into the desired shape—they can be flattened, curved like a potato chip, or rolled up into a cone. Each shape works best for creating different parts of a design.
For example, a flower can be built up with layers of differently shaped scales. One technique is to start with a layer of flat scales and then add a layer of curved scales to mimic the look of overlapping petals. Finally, a cone shaped scale is placed in the middle of the petals to act as the centre of the flower.
In relief work, scales are glued onto a backing of velvet, hide or heavy art paper. Sometimes scales are glued to each other to create three-dimensional pieces.
Scales are not commonly seen on functional pieces like moccasins because the scales can get brittle over time and be easily damaged.
Inspiration for the designs often comes from the natural world. Common themes are flowers, leaves and berries, or sometimes fish and animal designs.
Some artists incorporate fish bones into their designs. Others combine techniques from quillwork, moose or caribou hair tufting and fish scale work. One might use scales to form the bud of a flower paired with porcupine quills for the flower’s stem.
As fish grow, their scales grow accordingly. Like the rings found in tree trunks, fish scales also have rings that can indicate the age of a fish and what its life was like.
Biologists can read these rings to determine how the fish grew, where it lived, and even major life events. For example, tight rings indicate a time when the fish grew slowly and likely experienced a food shortage, while loose rings show fast growth caused by easy access to nourishment.
Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association
1-1109 Front Street (White Pass Building)
Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A-5G4