Dene Collection, Special Collections, University of Calgary LIbrary

This collection was made by women from Fort Providence, NWT, during 1974-75 for exhibition in Calgary at the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Women's World to recognize
International Women's Year.

Dene Crafts Collection - Catalogue of the Collection
Dene Crafts Collection - Bibliography
Dene Crafts Collection - Acknowledgements
Dene Crafts Collection - Gallery


Traditional flower and geometric designs have been used on clothing and utility items by the Athapaskan Indians over the centuries. The various Athapaskan tribes already were artistically using available natural resources to decorate items in precontact times.

They discovered that natural dyes could be extracted from leaves, bark, flowers and lichens to provide colour to porcupine quills, leathers of wild animals and designs drawn on leathers, even though the colours were temporary. Hide fringe was used in the early decorative process. The Athapaskans often soaked the fringe in coloured water before attaching it to an article.

When the early explorers, fur traders and missionaries arrived with bright colours decorating their clothing, gun cases and footwear, it aroused the creative desires of the Athapaskans to make this a part of their cultural fabric.

The Athapaskan women had used porcupine quills to attach to items by using bone needles and sinew found along the legs of buffalo, deer, moose and caribou (Page 95 - The Athapaskans: Strangers of the North). However, the introduction of glass beads, cloth materials and threads, along with permanent dyes were exciting new materials to decorate items.

The religious orders arrived soon after the contact era. There is evidence that many clerics arrived in Athapaskan camps in the late 1700s.

Soon after the arrival of the newcomers, and by the early 1800s after religious instruction, nuns arrived to teach school. The nuns were mainly from Belgium and France.

Many of the teachers were interested in the cultural aspects. These teachers noted that the oils in the porcupine quills, hides, and hair affected the permanency of the dyes used in designs. They taught the women methods of flattening the quills, plaiting and weaving to give a three dimensional look to decorations. Above all, they introduced bright aniline dyes, and colourful (European developed) beads. The Athapaskan women welcomed these new innovations. Wool and cotton thread was readily adapted for their use.

The craft working relations between the native women and the teaching nuns brought about a common bond. Soon the women were weaving with porcupine quills to make adornments for clothing and utility items. These woven bits were sewn on leather articles (Page 142 - The Athapaskans: Strangers of the North).

Quill decorations became less popular as the bead work, cotton and silk embroidery were not as labour intensive for decorating.

The Belgian nuns observed the native women plucking the long guard hairs from the legs and back of the caribou and moose during the early winter months. The women twisted and braided the hair which they attached to items as decoration. The Belgian nuns had used horse hair, twisted and tufted, to make flower patterns for decorating clothing and utility items.

The Athapaskan women, along with the teaching nuns were experimenting, first using crepe paper dyes, which faded. Then they discovered that if the oils were removed from the hair that the aniline dyes could be used and that the colours became permanent.

By the late 1960s, commercial braids, bias tape, cotton, wool and silk threads, had taken over as accepted materials for decorating.

Memoree Philipp, a business woman in the Slavey settlement of Fort Providence, recognized the quality of the quill and tufted work done by the older women of Fort Providence, NWT. Mrs. Philipp set up a workshop and encouraged Bella Bonnetrouge, a Slavey elder, to teach the younger women her skills in creating traditional artistic design pieces. Many women became interested, and in the early 1970s, a cottage craft industry was started. This created economic benefits to the people of the settlement. Mrs. Philipp brought items to Cal Abrahamson, Supervisor of Arts and Crafts, Dept. of Economic Development, Government of the Northwest Territories.

Dr. Margaret (Marmie) Hess, Calgary Galleries Ltd., owner and a knowledgeable collector of native art, had studied and knew of the quill and hair crafts of the Athapaskans. Cal Abrahamson displayed several moose hair tufted and quill items for Dr. Hess to examine.

Marmie Hess was excited by the prospects, and immediately visited the Fort Providence workshop. She displayed items for sale in her gallery, and purchased a number of pieces for her collection.

Dr. Hess, with her considerable knowledge and drive, interested the National Museum of Man, Ottawa, in mounting an exhibition of Athapaskan earlier works, and encouraged the Museum to write the book, The Athapaskans: Strangers of the North. In addition, during the International Women's Year in 1974, she loaned her contemporary collection to the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede for display as a tribute to their Women's World.

The following year, Dr. Hess donated her collection to the University of Calgary, Special Collections. This fine collection is on display at the University on a permanent basis.

©Cal D. Abrahamson, C.M., C.D.A. (Used with permission)

Dene Crafts - Catalogue of the Collection
Dene Crafts - Bibliography