This land is gifted with magical Northern Lights and boundless wilderness teeming with majestic beasts. In the summer, the sun doesn’t set and there’s adventure around every corner. It’s no wonder, then, why artists in the Northwest Territories don’t seem to be lacking in inspiration.
Each community of the Northwest Territories is home to master artisans dedicated to creating works of art that reflect their lived experiences, that draw on the lessons of their mentors and elders, that inspire new artists to pick up the tools. Techniques to tan moosehides or to fashion drums have been practiced in the North since time immemorial, while other art forms like beading have been adopted and given new meaning, infusing traditional clothing with elegance and flair.
Influenced by (and sourced from) the land, here are eight timeless and exquisite traditional arts in the Northwest Territories that will leave you speechless.
Smooth yet durable, birchbark baskets are wonders to behold. Waterproof, pliable and resistant to rotting, these baskets are typically decorated with delicate flower designs crafted from meticulously trimmed moose hair bundles or carefully arranged porcupine quills.
The bark is expertly cut in strips from birch trees in the spring or early summer to preserve their natural oils and then stored in a cool place to keep it from drying out before an artist molds it into shape.
Where can I find it?: For a wide selection of birchbark baskets, fruit bowls and miniature canoes, visit the Acho Dene Native Crafts store in Fort Liard. Many souvenir and fine arts shops across the territory also sell birchbark baskets made by NWT masters.
Moccasins, mukluks and mitts
Nothing will keep you warmer or more comfortable than clothing made in the North.
Plus, you can’t beat the smell: Even after owning a pair of moccasins for years, the tanned caribou or moose skins will retain their signature and nostalgic smoky scent.
Moccasins are the footwear of choice around the house due to their coziness and style. Ringed with beaver fur and decorated with beautiful beaded uppers, moccasins let their wearers make a fashion statement. In recent years, artists across the Northwest Territories have opened up to customized designs, beading hockey team logos or Star Wars characters onto their uppers, while also offering more traditional flower or bird designs.
As far as winter wear goes, moosehide mukluks will keep your toes warm on even the coldest days and beaver fur mitts will protect fingers from winter’s chilliest winds.
Where can I find it?: Boutiques like the Yellowknives Dene Artisan Shop in Dettah or the Tlicho Online Store in Behchoko sell moccasins, mukluks, mitts and many other beaded moosehide accessories like credit card holders. Aurora Heat, a family business based out of Fort Smith, sells beaver fur warmers that you can stick into your mittens or boots to provide an instant boost against the cold.
Mother Hubbard parkas
Spend some time in the Western Arctic region during the winter and you’ll notice a particular parka design everywhere: the so-called Mother Hubbard parka is an iconic Inuvialuit fashion.
The two-layer winter jacket design consists of a colourfully patterned cotton outer-layer and a sunburst ring of wolverine or wolf fur around the hood, with a warm wool duffle under-layer that acts as insulation.
Where can I find it?: Seamstresses in Western Arctic communities will take measurements and create custom parkas based on a customer’s requests.
Preparing porcupine quills is a time-consuming endeavor. But if you’ve ever seen the mesmerizing patterns woven into decorative bands or the unique quill textures that stand out on a birchbark basket, that time is obviously well worth it.
Before you can begin working with the quills, they must be washed and dried over and over again to remove any oily agents that could cause them to turn yellow over time. Before dyes were available in the North, artists used berries, plants and flowers to give quills their vibrant colours.
Where can I find it?: Porcupine quill work adorns birchbark baskets, as well as moccasins and moosehide vests, and inventive necklace and earring designs.
Earring, necklaces, rings and more
Speaking of jewellery, this is another area where NWT artists are pushing boundaries with their designs. Using bone (caribou, moose, muskox, fish and even whale), as well as local gemstones, fish scales, porcupine quills, or beads affixed to tanned moosehide, NWT designers are making waves in the national and international fashion community. Just look at Tania Larsson, who is taking the world by storm with her designs gracing the pages of high- fashion magazines and showcased on catwalks in fashion hotbeds like New York.
Where can I find it?: Earrings, rings, necklaces and more can be found in pop-up markets, holiday sales, arts and fashion boutiques and souvenir shops in most NWT communities. Artists are also finding success selling their creations on the internet.
Moose hair tufting
Patiently arranged and sculpted from carefully prepared and dyed moose hair bundles, the vibrant flower designs fastened to a tanned moosehide backing will really jump out at you.
Moose hair tufting requires focus, patience and attention to detail. To create a moose hair tufting work, artists begin by plucking stiff hairs from the moose hide, and then sorting them by size and length. The hairs are washed, dyed and bundled together, before being threaded to a tanned moosehide backing–or to a piece of fabric or birchbark. The artist trims these bundles until achieving the shape they want, grouping many bundles together to form beautiful flowers.
Where can I find it?: Framed moose hide tufting designs can be purchased online through the Acho Dene Native Crafts store or from any of the many fine arts outlets in the NWT.
Carving and sculpture
From bone to limestone, expert carvers in the Northwest Territories use a variety of media to tell their stories or express a feeling. These artists can fashion an entire hunting scene out of a moose antler or muskox horn; they can tease out a nuanced emotion on a face etched into a rock canvas.
Carving often runs in the family, with grandparents, uncles and parents mentoring younger generations, teaching them how to use a hand file and chisel from an early age. That’s why you’ll see the same last names–Nasogaluak, Cardinal, Taylor, Hudson–attached to carvings at museums and art galleries in the Northwest Territories.
Where can I find it?: Drop by the Frozen Rock Studio on the way to Yellowknife’s Old Town to see local carvers hard at work. To browse a selection of works, visit Northern Images in downtown Yellowknife–an arts co-op with carvings and prints spanning the North–or the Gallery of the Midnight Sun in Old Town.
Dene and Inuvialuit drums
Drum-dancing is an important part of most ceremonies and celebrations in the Northwest Territories. Depending on where you are, a traditional drum can vary in size, shape and sound. The standard Dene drum is made from dried caribou skin stretched over a birch wood frame. Strips of sinew (known locally as babiche) lie on the face of the drum to give it a fuzzier sound when the drummer strikes it. The much larger Inuvialuit drum has a handle for the drummer, who produces a much deeper boom.
Where can I find it?: To purchase an Inuvialuit drum, stop in at the Inuvialuit Regional Craft Shop in Inuvik.