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Arts and Lifeways - Traditional Artwork

Painted hide at Fort Whoop-Up

Aboriginal art takes many forms that range from rock art and sculpture to hide-made clothing and accessories adorned with nature-inspired designs. While native art often has spiritual connotations, it also reflects the Aboriginal Peoples’ close bond with the natural world as the items are made from natural materials and often boast nature-themed decorations.

One of the earliest forms of traditional native art is rock art. Divided into two distinct categories, rock art includes petroglyphs, which refers to images that are etched onto a stone surface using a piece of bone, antler, or stone, and pictographs, which refer to images that are painted onto a rough surface using red ochre, an iron-rich natural substance. Ochre was favoured by the Nations of Treaty 7 because of its durability and was applied by the artist’s fingers or by the porous ends of bone. Rock art images illustrated daily events such as the hunting of wild animals or could be spiritual in scope and depict a vision or dream.

While highly functional, daily tools also exemplified artistic elements. As an example, rocks decorated with small and intricate designs were fastened to the ends of spears not only functional uses such as weighing down the weapon, but also to add a hint of decoration. Likewise, warriors’ shields were ornamented with images derived from dreams or visions. Natural materials such as green alder (Alnus crispa), brown-eyed Susan (Gaillardia aristata), or blueberries (Vaccinium caespithosum) would be used to color or dye the canvas.

Tipis were also adorned with colorful scenes depicting the tipi owner’s visions and dreams. In the Tsuu T’ina culture, bands would congregate in the summertime and would practice rituals such as painting tipis. It is believed that the tipi paintings brought good fortune to the owners.
The large conical-shaped tipis were stitched together with fifteen bison hides, and the process of tanning hides was an art in itself that was produced by women. Natural materials such as alpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) or trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) were gathered and used to smoke the hides, while fungus from white birch trees was used to clean and whiten fresh hides.

Hides were also used to make functional clothing such as moccasins, shirts, or dresses, and decorative accessories including bags or horses’ saddles. It was the woman’s duty to make and decorate such items and, as previously mentioned, nature served as a source of inspiration. Bone and awl functioned as a needle and thread, and before European contact, Natives relied on porcupine quills for decoration. Quills were also dyed vibrant colors by materials such as slender blue tongue (Penstemon procerus). Given the physical make-up of quills, the designs were geometrical in shape and the act of quill-working was an acquired skill. A woman was conferred the right to practice quill-work. The apprentice would learn from her mentor, a highly-skilled quill-worker. Only after many lessons and hours of practice would a woman be able to deem herself a true quill-worker. After contact, glass beads and ribbons were introduced to Native artisans. Such items were traded with Europeans, and the designs became even more vibrant in color and had intricate floral and arabesque motifs.

Whether tanning a hide or making a functional tool ornamented with decorations, native art is closely associated with nature. As Melissa-Jo and Ben Moses explain in Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations, “the traditional arts connect a person to his or her environment, taking raw natural resources and transforming them into a unique piece of durable, long lasting material… it connects us, teaches us who we are, and reminds us of the strength of a people before us.”

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