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Elders Voices
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Arts & Crafts


From the first hand-carved arrow points and awls, to modern and technology-based art, the creations of Aboriginal Peoples have evolved over the generations to include a wide variety of work. They may vary in their features and functions, but many of the pieces produced today are rooted in a shared connection to the past and a strong sense of pride and identity. Elders share their arts and crafts expertise with younger generations.

In traditional Aboriginal life, art did not exist separately, but was inherently present across all aspects of life. Everyday functional items, such as clothing and tipis, were carefully decorated to honour and reflect spiritual traditions.1 Tools for hunting, fishing, and transportation were especially vital to survival and were crafted by hand out of materials such as stones, wood, tree roots and animal bones or sinew.

The Peoples’ strong physical and spiritual connection to the land shone through in their handiwork. Elements found in nature were used to their fullest potential so that nothing would be wasted, a resourcefulness that showed deep reverence for the land. Art demanded this type of respect, as well as vision and patience, because creations were not just made for aesthetic purposes. They served as a connecting link to past history and spirituality. The Aboriginal Peoples found beauty in their surroundings and incorporated it into daily lives as a sign of respect and thankfulness to the Creator.

Clothing and small items necessary for daily life were fashioned with great care and intricately decorated. The patterns and symbols that graced these pieces often told stories about life. Aboriginal and Métis women were especially known for their intricate needlework. Porcupine quills, dyed with vegetable dyes or left with their natural hue, were used to make colourful designs and motifs, and glass beads became a popular alternative after the Fur Trade era. These designs graced everything from containers and satchels to moccasins and clothing.

CampWomen took great pride in their handiwork. Beautifully decorated clothes showed that a woman took care of her family and brought prestige and respect to the husbands and children wearing them. As girls grew, they learned special techniques from their mothers and grandmothers and in their later years passed them on to their own daughters and granddaughters.

Another craft that was taught across the generations was the art of tanning hides. This work, which was also mostly done by women, took skill and patience. Meat was cleaned off the hide, which was then stretched and laced onto a wooden frame and scraped thin until it became rawhide – the stiff, white hide that is used for making drums and rattles. A special mixture of boiled moose brains, fat, and soap was rubbed into the hide, which was left to soften. After a few days, it was smoked in front of a fire and, finally, soaked in water until soft leather emerged. It was then ready to be sewn into clothes or moccasins and decorated with beadwork.2 Today, some Elders continue to tan hides using the process that was taught to them as young children.

The tipi was another practical object that was decorated to reflect aspects of the spiritual life. It was painted with sacred designs, which originated in dreams or visions and told stories about life and the universe. The knowledge of the history and spirituality behind these designs was passed down along the generations, and the stories and songs that accompanied them were recounted by community Elders.

Contemporary Aboriginal artists often use new ways of making art to show old understandings. Modern art forms have emerged alongside beautiful traditions of the past. Within all the areas of the arts, Aboriginal Elders have ensured the preservation and evolution of their creative heritage by passing on their arts and crafts techniques and grounding them in a traditional and spiritual setting.


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