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From the North American Subarctic.

The idea of beadwork applied to a substrate of animal fur might seem like a strange one. But to certain indigenous peoples of the Canadian and Alaskan Subarctic regions, this was a unique specialty, relatively little known to collectors and students of Native American material culture.

In spite of the apparent technical awkwardness one would imagine in working with beads on such a surface, seal skins were of course a readily available resource to Native American tribes in the Subarctic and Arctic region. To many of these scattered tribal groups, such a commodity tended to be gratefully accepted as a gift from the Creator and used regularly for making clothing and other purposes. Dehaired sealskin was frequently used by the Inuit, Aleut, and Northern Athapaskan peoples of Alaska, as well as by the Yupik of neighboring Siberia. Retaining the fur on hides such as caribou and seal, however, had obvious practical advantages in the cold Arctic or Subarctic climate, and as such was incorporated into boots, mittens and other articles of clothing.

The Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi) of eastern Canada

Responding to changing styles of objects made for indigenous consumption as well as the demand for souvenir goods by non-Native visitors, some of these isolated groups began making articles of sealskin with the fur left intact, cleverly decorated with seed beadwork. Notable among these remotely scattered groups are the Innu, an Algonkian people of Quebec and Labrador in eastern Canada, closely related to the Cree-speaking peoples on the east coast of James Bay. The Innu traditionally were fishermen, hunters and gatherers, and are subdivided into the Montagnais, inhabiting the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence in Quebec, and the less numerous Naskapi, who live further to the north (see map, page 10). Famous for their painted caribou hide coats, their lesser-known floral bead embroidery on sealskin seems to be stylistically related to Cree work.

U-shaped sealskin shoulder bags (similar in shape to woolen cloth examples) have been noted, and are decorated with simple floral beadwork designs. Smaller tobacco pouches of folding wallet-like form are by far the most commonly encountered article of beaded sealskin from the eastern Subarctic region in museum and private collections. Several such specimens were collected by ethnologist Frank G. Speck and illustrated in his work on Northeast Algonkian art [1914]. Cited as Montagnais, they were acquired variously at Sept-at Sept-Iles, Moisie River, and Lake St John, Quebec. Other closely related specimens are to be found in the William Duncan Strong Collection in the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, and are illustrated in James W. Van Stone's study of material culture of the Davis Inlet and Barren Ground Naskapi [1985]. Two additional examples are illustrated (Figs. 2A & B and 3A, B, C). Made from a rectangle of sealskin, they have two folds, effectively dividing the eventual wallet into three distinct fields. One of the ends is shaped to form a rounded front flap. In some cases, all three of the separate fields are decorated--front, back, and the area beneath the flap--as in Fig.3. Sometimes, just the front and back surfaces are beaded--as in Fig.2. The beadwork is executed in a combination of contoured lane-stitch and loosely couched applique techniques, using animal sinew as thread. Great care is taken to avoid piercing the entire thickness of the hide, so that the stitches are not visible on the back. This must have involved a certain skill and manual dexterity.

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The strong preference is for simple symmetrical floral compositions, highly stylized in form. Although it is widely acknowledged that floral imagery is an intrusive European influence on Native American art, the way in which these designs of flowers and leaves are actually put together has an age-old resonance. Interestingly, hidden within their floral beadwork compositions is evidence of ancient double-curve motifs, indigenous to many northeastern Algonkian peoples. Such designs occur in ancient petroglyphs and are incised on the sides of birchbark vessels and canoes in the eastern Maritime region (Figs.5 and 6).

Occasionally, asymmetrical compositions are sometimes used instead, as in Fig.3C. In such cases, the influence and source of inspiration doubtless lies more in European floral design rather than in the indigenous double-curve motif.

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A mixture of opaque and translucent colors is used. In the case of both tobacco pouches illustrated, beads used arc of Venetian type, size 4/0, (with the addition of some smaller beads on the pouch in Fig.2). The combination of beads on a glossy seal fur background is rather interesting, highly unusual, and unexpectedly appealing.

The seams of the pouch illustrated in Fig.2 are stitched with sinew and edged with green silk ribbon and a zipper edging of pink, dark blue and medium green beads on a commercial cotton thread. The second example, illustrated in Fig.3, has become unstitched at the seams and has lost its original edging of red silk ribbon.

The Tlingit of southern Alaska

The Montagnais and Naskapi were not the only makers of beaded sealskin souvenirs. Much further to the northwest of the North American continent, the Tlingit of southern coastal Alaska (see map above) were producing for commercial sale a wide range of seal fur objects decorated with floral and representational beadwork designs. From at least the 1920s onwards, slipper-like moccasins, pincushions, and picture frames were typical of the type of material made by this group.

Eagles, obviously inspired by the patriotic emblem, the Great Seal of the United States, were a favorite choice of design, beaded in applique (couched overlay) technique. Commercial cotton thread was generally used for the beadwork.

Fig.6 shows a detail of the front of a typical Tlingit sealskin pouch made for commercial sale, decorated with the figure of a patriotic eagle in flight, (originally clutching arrows?). French sparkling beads are used to great effect in combination with a range of other colors, beaded over a template of blue felt which allows the beads to lie flatter on the surface of the sealskin. The pouch is edged with woolen flannel cloth.

Many items from this region combine sealskin with brightly colored woolen cloth or felt. An example of this is the slipper type moccasins of the Tlingit. This moccasin type frequently incorporates cloth vamps onto which beadwork is applied, rather than applying beads directly to the fur.

Though perhaps an unlikely choice for the decorative application of beadwork, seal fur was used to great decorative effect by indigenous peoples at both the western and eastern extremities of the North American continent. The resulting articles, made both for indigenous use as well as for sale for the non-Native market, were highly unusual in combining the textures, luster and sheen of fur combined with beads.

Bibliography

Speck, Frank G. (1914). The Double-Curve Motif in Northeastern Algonkian Art. Ottawa: Department of Mines, Geological Survey, Memoir 42.

Van Stone, James W. (1985). Material Culture of the Davis Inlet and Barren Ground Naskapi--The William Duncan Strong Collection. Fieldiana, Field Museum of Natural History.
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Title Annotation:Native American beadworks
Author:Green, Richard
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Words:1184
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