Congratulations are extended to the Wemindji Investing in Traditional Skills group for their recent award from the Canada Council for the Arts. The group received a research grant in Aboriginal Traditional Art Forms funded by the Visual Arts section of the council. The award recognizes the group’s efforts to revitalize the construction of folded spruce bark baskets and to regain and expand their knowledge of Native design and patterns applicable to their work with moose hide.

In 2001 in the Cree Nation of Wemindji, traditional artists formed the group Investing In Traditional Skills which is known for their expertise in working with traditionally handcrafted moose hide making moccasins, mukluks, gloves, mittens, and walking out ceremony outfits, as well as weaving snowshoes and constructing folded spruce bark baskets. They produce quality beadwork and are recognized for their embroidery. The high quality of Cree moose hide tanning processes that produces a soft and supple hide lends itself to the beautiful results the group achieves embroidering on the hide. ‘Skills’ uses traditional patterns and designs, creates contemporary images and draws on motifs from popular culture. The group consists of six women from diverse generations: Josephine Atsynia, Beatrice Cheezo,

Marlene Matches, Delores Blackned, Marlene Georgekish and Annie Saganash.

The women learnt their traditional skills by watching their mothers and other Elders. Annie enjoys telling the story of how she snuck her mother’s moccasin and took it apart in order to learn how to sew it back together! Retired Cree Culture teachers Daisy Gunner, Margaret Bearskin and Edith Visitor also taught several members of the group many of the skills they practice today.

The late Isabel Mayappo, Mary Asquabaneskum, Emily Georgekish, Mary B. Georgekish and Charlotte Visitor, all from Wemindji, have contributed greatly to the community’s collective knowledge and skills through their efforts to teach and pass on their wisdom.

Investing in Traditional Skills is concerned with regaining and practicing Cree traditional skills. They make conscientious efforts to think through and pursue the ideas of their younger members in order that Cree traditions maintain a living presence in today’s society, yet reflect the values from which they flourished. At the request of one of the younger members, the group began to research how to make spruce baskets particular to the region. They had discovered a picture in an Indian Affairs catalogue and had seen a spruce basket in an Elder’s home. Although several Elders described how to construct the baskets, very few could actually remember making them themselves. Working closely with those Elders, the group discovered enough stories and information to start.

For the first time in a long while bark and roots were collected to construct baskets in the community. The group is delighted with the results and encouraged to continue to develop its skills. The baskets have been accepted at the Canadian Guild of Crafts and at the McCord Museum boutique for sale, but the best reward has been the appreciation displayed by the community. Last spring adults and children alike were often found with their noses pressed against the workshop windows while they watched the group clean roots, scrape and fold bark as the artists worked with the materials and the baskets took shape.

Listening to Elders speak about the baskets and their different uses, the group realized that these traditional purposes required a variety of forms necessitating handles and lids. When necessary the baskets were used to store or bury a cache of food for future use. Unfortunately, to date the group has not been successful regaining sufficient local knowledge and has encountered difficulty in mastering the techniques required to practice these older ways. Several Elders have reached an age where communication of detailed information has become too difficult. If any readers wish to share stories concerning this knowledge, please contact the group.

Annie has noted that the functional ways of working with hide that she learnt in the bush, like those skills used to construct baskets, were quite different from the more decorative forms she sells in town today. The Aboriginal Traditional Art Forms grant is supporting the group in their endeavor to pursue this knowledge. In order to speak with other knowledgeable Elders, the group will make two trips, one to Eastmain and one to Chisasibi, where geographically the environment supported the construction of folded spruce bark baskets. The group is also planning to source bark from areas under development where spruce trees have been marked for deforestation.

A special research trip has been organized for the first two weeks of April, when the group will travel to Montreal and Ottawa. There they will take a three-day course researching basket construction with Atikamekw birch bark artist Edmond Dubé at the Montreal Native Friendship Centre.

They will also visit the ethnology collection and take a moose hide tufting workshop with Delores Contre-Migwans at the McCord Museum. Diana Perera from the Canadian Guild of Crafts will meet the group to speak about the guild’s history. The group sells folded spruce bark baskets and traditionally tanned moose hide clothing and tools at both the McCord Boutique and in the Guild’s gallery.

In Ottawa, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, with help from John Moses, Assistant Curator Artie & Woodlands Ethnology, the group will have the opportunity to study, document and sketch patterns from baskets and ornamentation from traditional clothing. John Moses feels this is significant, as the group will view objects that Cree people may not have seen since they were collected.

As one of its objectives, Investing in Traditional Skills hopes to reclaim and revitalize Aboriginal women’s traditional designs and inspire contemporary work. Marlene feels this work is important because she wants to carry on her Cree traditions – this is what she does. Reviving skills, such as basket making and moose hide tanning, once necessary for the quality of life experienced in the bush within the contemporary community setting is another objective for these artists who wish to see their Youth continue Cree traditions.

Josephine really loves sewing and working with beads. She wants to keep the traditional practices going and wants to pass them down to her children. While they try to save some work for sales in towns further south, the group consistently sells out in their own community.

At the end of the day Beatrice, despite working full time with the group, continues to sew at home making mittens, gloves and other items for the people in the community. In Wemindji, interest in traditional art forms is strong. For example, Delores’s work is very important to her; it has been her main occupation since she was a girl.

The community’s Elders enjoy seeing their knowledge and skills passed on, often delighting in the contemporary forms the group’s creativity has produced. Investing in Traditional Skills believes that the values that support traditional Cree art forms are key to Cree culture and its continued relevance in contemporary life.