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Traditional Arts and Fine Crafts

Traditional ways of life have been an important part of survival for the NWT’s First Nations peoples since time immemorial. Today, many residents still practice a sustainable lifestyle, including hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering from the land – all while preserving their culture, giving thanks and wasting nothing. 

Bertha Kenny mocassinMoose and caribou, which are still primarily harvested for food, provide a large hide that can be traditionally tanned and turned into waterproof and windproof items like clothing, gloves or moccasins. Even antlers can be transformed into jewellery or a carving. Fur bearing animals such as wolverine, wolf, beaver, mink, muskrat, marten (sable) and fox, provide a warm pelt to trim parka hoods and other outdoor accessories. In the northern Arctic winters, nothing compares to the durability and warmth of traditionally tanned hides and furs.

Labour intensive from the very start, raw materials from the land must be prepared before they are used to create a handmade work of art, or craft. 

Utilitarian items, such as clothing and birchbark baskets, were embellished with quillwork or tufting primarily for artistic expression and beauty. It was not until the mid-1800s that beadwork was introduced as an alternative to designs with porcupine quills and moose or caribou hairs. Today, regional styles can be seen in these decorative techniques, reflecting the different artistic influences and expressions of First Nations groups from across the territory.

Other artists work with contemporary materials or equipment that draw inspiration from the ancient stories, traditional knowledge and personal experiences of the territory’s First Nations people – printmaking was introduced to the Inuvialuit of Uklukhaktok (formerly Holman) in 1957. However, this talented group of artists embraced this contemporary form of art as a means to express their stories and culture, and the art market responded enthusiastically.

Cultural value is one of the main reasons traditional arts and fine crafts are still made today. They are an important glimpse into our North’s history and serve to preserve the rich Aboriginal cultures that embody our territory. This heritage is a part of the story of the art and the artist who created it.Shanno Wilson Traditional sash