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Northern athapaskan beadwork.

The Northern Athapaskan peoples occupy a vast area of the Canadian and Alaskan Subarctic. It stretches over 2300 miles from the Alaskan interior to the west coast of Hudson's Bay, Manitoba, covering large areas of Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, northern Alberta and Saskatchewan in between. They are a complex and fluid network of linguistically related peoples, inhabiting a harsh environment with lengthy winters, restricted daylight and sub-zero temperatures.

Before the easy availability of trade goods via traders--initially Cree neighbors and eventually through the Hudson Bay Company--indigenous Northern Athapaskan clothing consisted of tailored caribou hide garments. These consisted of tunics, trousers incorporating moccasins, and mittens. Traditional clothing was sparsely decorated with bands of woven porcupine quillwork.

A variety of European influences, imported from further east, created a revolution in Northern Athapaskan decorative art by the mid-nineteenth century.

In a previous article (Green 2007), the author described the extent of various intrusive styles of silk thread embroidery across vast areas of the Canadian Subarctic region. By the mid-seventeenth century, French Ursuline nuns had begun teaching European style needlework to young Huron girls in convent schools. Their aim being to inculcate these young Native girls with Christian values. Floral designs in French embroidery style were used as inspiration for a range of moose hair embroidered objects.

Among the neighboring Cree and Ojibwa groups of central Canada, Roman Catholic ministries were established by the early nineteenth century. The earliest was located at Red River on Lake Winnipeg in 1818. A few years later, mission schools were teaching young girls the domestic skills of floral silk thread embroidery and beadwork. These mission schools very soon spread from the central Subarctic, further north and west to the lands of the Northern Athapaskans. By 1849, a mission school run by the Grey Nuns had been established at Fort Chipewyan, a trading center for local Athapaskan and Cree groups.

A diversity of other intrusive influences without doubt contributed to the evolution and diffusion of floral beadwork and silk thread embroidery amongst the Indian peoples of North America. England, Europe and Scandinavia all have long-established traditions of floral applied arts in a variety of media, from embroidery and textile design to painted woodwork. Each of these traditions must have been represented in the homes and trading stores of the earliest Canadian settlers, and been factors influencing the spread of floral decorative arts throughout the indigenous peoples of Canada and, indeed, many parts of the United States.




Broadly speaking, the beadwork art of the Northern Athapaskan groups divides into five regional styles, as outlined by an important work on Northern Athapaskan material culture by Kate C. Duncan (1989). Each of these regional styles shares a number of common features.

1. Great Slave Lake / Mackenzie River Region





This is the most influential of the five Northern Athapaskan regional styles, extending over the widest area, from Fort Yukon, Alaska, as far east as Churchill, Manitoba, and covering northern areas of Saskatchewan, Alberta and the northeastern corner of British Columbia.

Objects from this region are the most likely to be found in museums and private collections. The indigenous population of the region consists of the Kutchin (Gwich'in), Slavey (Slave), Chipewyan (not to be confused with the Chippewa of the Great Lakes area), the Dogrib, Yellowknife, Mountain, Hare and Satudene. (See map).

Beaded objects most commonly produced by these groups include baby carrying belts, moss bags (cradles), babiche game (hunting) bags, dog blankets, shelf valances, wall bags, drawstring tobacco pouches, and smoking caps. Much of this material was made for indigenous use, although large quantities were also made for sale and distributed by means of local trading routes.








Floral forms in the Great Slave Lake / Mackenzie River region tend to be exuberant in style and masterful in execution, characterized by dense and complex asymmetrical arrangements of flowers, leaves, buds and tendrils. A wide range of different floral forms is used in a composition. The beadwork technique employed is couched overlay (applique or spot stitch), usually sinew-threaded, often sinew-couched. The choice of substrate is usually black velvet or navy blue or black woolen cloth, occasionally smoked moose hide.

Typical floral compositions tend to consist of a main design, often built up of successive layers of solidly beaded core elements, embellished by surrounding floral and foliate elaboration. A central flower, for example, is surrounded by further petals, then by leaves, creating a dense and complex core, from which smaller-scale elements radiate. (Figs.1 -10).

A wide variety of bead colors tends to be used, often several colors within a single floral unit. The floral designs themselves are equally varied, including floral rosettes, bell-shaped flowers, curled tendrils, and berries. Petals are rounded, pointed, or indented. Stems are typically embellished with projecting 'hairs'. (Figs. 4, 6, 12 and 13). Some of these designs may have been inspired by the local flora of the Great Slave Lake / Mackenzie River region.

Another important characteristic in this region is the use of faceted steel and brass beads, used as accents within the outer contour of petals, or at the tip of leaves and tendrils. (Fig.2).

2. Yukon-Tanana region

The peoples of this region include the Tanana, Han, Tutchone, Ahtena and Koyukon. (See map). They inhabit an area covering the Yukon River valley in Canada, the Tanana and Middle Yukon River valleys in Alaska.

Beaded objects most commonly associated with these groups include sled bags, mittens, gun cases, gold poke pouches, and English style hide hunting shirts with bib, collar, shoulder epaulets and cuffs. Another item of men's clothing popular in this region is the jacket with back yoke and plackets--vertical decorated bands, applied to each side of the front opening. (Fig.14).




Although there is a strong influence from the Great Slave Lake / Mackenzie River style, beadwork from this region is characteristically quite restrained in composition, employing fewer separate motifs on an individual piece. Large open areas of background, usually a bright red woolen cloth or smoked hide, are a feature of this style of beadwork.




Floral compositions are often dominated by a strong network of stems which serve to link the floral elements of the composition. (Figs.15 and 16). Both plain and hair stems are used, though rarely together on the same object.

A further feature of this Yukon-Tanana style is the use of contour outlines to floral or semi-floral motifs, often ogee-sided, without solidly in-filled interior. This is exemplified in the design on the Tanana mittens illustrated in Figs. 15 and 16.

Floral forms are typically divided transversely by bead color, irrespective of the actual contour of the motif in question. This treatment can be seen both in the central flower motif on the jacket yoke in Fig.14, as well as in several of the openwork motifs in Fig.15 and 16.

A variant of this regional style was produced by the Han and Koyukon peoples in the early years of the twentieth century, and comprises a range of articles made for sale - cushion covers, picture frames and wall bags. (Fig.17). The inspiration for many of these objects was probably drawn from ladies' magazines like the Ladies Home Journal. Designs such as daisies, pansies, forget-me-nots, as well as representations of eagles, hearts, flags and other realistic designs, were popular.







3. Liard-Fraser Region

This southwestern region of Athapaskan territory is populated by the Kaska, Sekani, Beaver, Carrier, and Chilcotin peoples. (See map on page 5).

Beadwork from this region is perhaps the most removed, in a stylistic sense, from the floral tradition of other Northern Athapaskan peoples. The commonest items found in museum and private collections are fire bags, used to carry fire-making equipment; gun cases, and sled bags with front flap.

Although certain pieces feature floral motifs reminiscent of work from the Great Slave Lake area, Duncan (1989:118) suggests that through these designs are discernible a much earlier artistic tradition. Some examples combine floral designs against a geometric background; others exhibit a strongly abstract quality, almost verging on the chaotic.

A common practice was the random in-filling of background areas between designs, these areas being given the same level of emphasis as the main designs. This practice has been taken to the ultimate extreme in the case of the fire bag illustrated in Figs.18-21.

4. Interior Coastal region

This region, located inland from the coast of British Columbia, is the homeland of the Inland Tlingit and the Tagish. (See map on page 5). Their close proximity to the Tlingit proper, led to a Northwest Coast influence in their beadwork designs. They produced, amongst other items, octopus bags, wall bags, dance shirts and knife sheaths on straps, which were worn around the neck.

Designs are of an overtly stylized semi-floral form, typically ogee scrolls, often contour outlined, without solidly beaded in-fill. Concentric contours are often of contrasting colors.

Red wool was often favored as a background, smoked hide being an alternative. (Fig.24 and 25).

5. Tahltan Region

The Tahltan are the neighbors to the south of the Interior Tlingit, located in the north-west corner of British Columbia. (See map on page 5). They are well known for their production of extremely stylized abstract and curvilinear motifs, often on a red woollen cloth background. Objects of Tahltan origin most often encountered in collection include knife sheaths with neck straps, fire bags, and cartridge belts. Fire bags often combined stylized abstract forms with woven rectangular panels in larger beads.

Northern Athapaskan Beadwork Today

Beadwork continues to be produced today by many individuals across Northern Athapascan country, particularly in Alaska where a wide range of Native craftwork is made for the tourist market, including traditional and fashion clothing, mukluks, moccasins, gloves and mittens, as well as smaller articles such as hair barrettes, purses, billfolds, photograph frames, and scissors cases.


Modern beadwork consists predominantly of bold floral work in couched overlay technique, employing seed beads of opaque, translucent, sparkling and pearlized type on smoked-tanned or commercial hide. Several contemporary Northern Athapaskan beadworkers with whom the author has corresponded were taught their art by mothers, grandmothers and aunts. Regional styles differ rather less than in earlier times, but the quality of craftsmanship is consistently high and many beadworkers find a market for their work in local tourist towns and communities, as well as through popular internet auction sites.


Duncan, Kate C. (1989). Northern Athapaskan Art-A Beadwork Tradition. University of Washington Press.

Green, Richard. (2007). Rarely Seen Equaled-Silk Embroidery of the Canadian Subarctic. Whispering Wind, 37:3.


(1.) Alternatively spelt Athabascan, and sometimes referred to as Dene


Duncan, Kate C. and Eunice Carney. (1988). A Special Gift The Kutchin Beadwork Tradition. University of Washington Press.

Hail, Barbara A. and Kate C Duncan. (1989). Out of the

North-The Subarctic Collection of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Brown University.

Helm, June (ed.). (1981). Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 6-Subarctic. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
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Author:Green, Richard
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:100NA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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