As discussion surrounding indigenous North American cultures and the appropriation of their traditional motifs and materials continues apace, visually engaging and well-researched books about specific North American indigenous groups help to foster understanding. Women’s Work, Women’s Art is the most recent volume on Athapaskan clothing by former museum curator Judy Thompson, focusing on nineteenth-century outfits, accessories, and the concomitant social and cultural practices. As a material culture study, the beauty and utility of each object is celebrated and the book falls somewhere between a coffee-table tome and an exhibition catalogue; this approach may be more attractive to the layperson than the many anthropological texts written on the subject of Athapaskan clothing traditions. Ripe with museum-quality photographs reinforced by more than forty years of research and experience, this book inspires appreciation of the unique and diverse styles of native cultures.
Author of many books on indigenous Canadian clothing, Judy Thompson has written about Athapaskan footwear in Pride of the Indian Wardrobe as well as focused studies of Dene and Kutchin dress. Thompson reveals her own background in the foreword to Women’s Work, noting that her interest in nineteenth-century Athapaskan clothing was sparked by a mystery garment in museum collections and that she made it a priority to learn traditional sewing techniques from elders and other members of various Athapaskan groups. The material cultural focus of her clothing history books springs from the conviction that “[garments] embody very specific information about clothing materials, garment designs, and sewing and decorative art techniques–information that is recorded nowhere else.” (6).
In Women’s Work, she organizes her research around a gender-role perspective to approach a meaningful history of Athapaskan clothing and accessories. Much of the labor that went into making traditional Athapaskan clothing was done by women. From the rough physical effort of tanning hides to the fine detailing of quillwork, Athapaskan women were versatile artisans with both the protective responsibility of keeping family members warm and safe in a harsh climate, as well as the cultural responsibility of perpetuating the delicate, decorative practices of their forebears.
Thompson has organized an immense amount of information, visual and historical, into an accessible, logical progression from introductory overview to specific bead design. Newly retired from the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Thompson’s new book evinces her dedication to the ethnographic practices of that institution. For example, she addresses word choice in her introduction: the names of various groups used throughout her book are updated monikers accepted by the groups themselves, with older names given by non-native observers in parentheses. She relies heavily on first-contact memoirs and journals for her work, and is careful to alternately acknowledge the drawbacks of such primary sources where necessary and praise them when particularly rigorous and objective:
The great value of [fur trader-explorer Alexander] Mackenzie’s descriptions of these Athapaskan peoples lies in their early date –he witnessed cultures virtually untouched by contact with Europeans–and in the immediacy and apparent accuracy of his narrative. Mackenzie seems to have taken care to describe objectively what he saw: by his own account, he recorded events ‘without exaggeration or display’ and ‘seldom allowed [himself] to wander into conjecture.’” (179)
Although dappled liberally with contemporary photographs, drawings, and paintings to illustrate these narratives, the real focus here is on the extant object.
As a curator, Thompson acknowledges the role of objects in writing and preserving the history of a culture’s clothing. The museum-quality documentation of these garments is a great credit to the publication, in the traditional form of crisp, clear, colorful photographic images. These photographs are accompanied by excellent, sharp and concise diagrams of the pictured clothing, explicating weaving techniques, quillwork wrapping, the direction of the twist of a set of fringe. This rich and thoughtful observation, paired with first-contact accounts and more recent oral histories, makes this book an essential volume in the study of nineteenth-century Athapaskan clothing specifically and native North American cultures in general.
And Thompson does get specific. She begins, logically, with an introduction faced with a mid-nineteenth-century watercolor of a Gwich’in man and this lovely first-contact description:
In this introductory overview, she explores basic universal truths about Athapaskan clothing and its study: utility and beauty, gender division both in the making and wearing of clothing by women and men of various ages, the creation of identity through dress.
‘They all arrived slowly singing harmoniously…dressed in their best apparel for the occasion…white or new dressed skin coverings, Leggings fringed painted & garnished with Porcupine Quillwork, bunches of Feathers stuck wildly into the Hair of their Heads which hands in great luxuriance round their Capot.’ (Fur trader Samuel Black, on Meeting a group of Tahltan, July 1824, p.3)
Her first chapter begins with a map of “Northern Athapaskan peoples and their general territories in the nineteenth century” (8), which gives the reader geographic bearing. Clothing as survival gear is discussed, as well as a lyrical list of clothing and accessories worn by many peoples in the Athapaskan tradition. The gendered discussion indicated by the title is introduced in this chapter, and Thompson recounts the clothing and experiences essential to age-related initiations such as puberty and maternity, most of which center on girls and women (13-17). This was not always pleasant:
With the onset of her first menstruation, for a period ranging from a month up to two years in some cases, a girl lived apart from her family and community in a specially constructed shelter, where she was attended and instructed by close female relatives. When her people moved camp, she had to break her own trail, for if she walked in a man’s track, his success at hunting would suffer. She wore old clothing and a specially made large skin hood that hid her face and obstructed her vision, preventing her from looking at men or game–were she to do so, the consequences for the hunt would be disastrous. (14)
Mary Wilson, a Slavey group elder, remembers her “crash training”:
Then you are introduced to sewing–crafts like embroidering, sewing with porcupine quills, and beading…a very talented woman is chosen to start the first stitching. It seems like how you did during that time was the formation of your life as an adult…Nothing was written or read, everything was oral, but even today I still remember all that was told to me when I, too, had to go through that phase of life, when I stepped into womanhood. (15)
These memories and oral traditions illustrate the importance of dress and handcraft in the lives of many nineteenth-century Athapaskan women. Clothing, beading, and handcraft were indelibly intertwined with some of the most important stages of her life, and this should inform our twenty-first-century observation of extant Athapaskan clothing.
A history of the evolution of Athapaskan clothing follows, from trading post to twentieth-century “Euro-North American styles,” leading up to its most basic elements: the second chapter focuses on materials and “the art of sewing.” Aforementioned skills learned in a woman’s pubescent period are detailed here, and each of the materials and attendant processes are laid out. The traditional clothing of nineteenth-century Athapaskan groups was based on the materials at hand, and the reader is introduced to the tanning procedures for caribou skins and mountain goat hides. Porcupines gave their quills, and yellow-shafted woodpecker feathers were fashioned into headwear. Providing warmth and style, the materials gathered from these animals were supposed to offer the positive properties of the animals themselves: “Deg Hit’an mothers made parkas from hawk or loon skins for their boy babies ‘so that the boy may obtain the luck of these birds.’” (51) Sewing techniques from flat overcasting stitching to woven quillwork are described textually and with excellent diagrams, so detailed that a skilled beadworker could recreate the patterns given–although learning from a master seamstress or quillworker would be best. While not intended to be a pattern book, this practical information is vital to a true understanding of the material.
While the gendered perspective on work and wearing is essential to the history of this clothing, the remaining chapters are not overshadowed by that theme. Instead of feeling like a thread has been lost, this approach respects the reader, allowing for speculation and a material-based examination of the clothing objects. While Thompson does address the inherent gendered cultural nature of the objects she discusses, the factual, observable thing-ness of each garment is also allowed to shine. The intricacy and intimacy of the description may not interest every reader, but it is masterfully done:
The cut common to many versions of the pointed tunic is illustrated by a Gwich’in example…A striking feature of tunics of this design is their three-dimensionality–the arms curve to the front and the garment does not lie flat if laid on a table. This characteristic, which has been described as ‘a strong feeling of forward movement,’ is explained by specific aspects of the design and construction of the garment. As the drawing of its cut illustrates, the body is formed by two caribou hides, a large one from the back (A) and a notably smaller one for the front (B). …The sleeve head has an angular configuration, corresponding to the opening created by the joining of the garment front and back…When the sleeve is inserted, the upper back of the garment is pulled around to the front. The result is a sleeve positioned forward of the tunic’s side seam and curving to the front of the garment. (78, 80)
The third chapter presents an overview of a different sort; according to Thompson, the styles of many Athapaskan groups can be generalized into two categories: pointed tunics and “moccasin-trousers”, or an upper garment with a straight lower edge worn with leggings and moccasins. Athapaskan clothing is well represented in Canadian museums, and broad generalizations like this are easily backed up by extant objects and scholarly study. Here again, photographs of pointed tunics are organized alongside hand-drawn diagrams, both of the full garment and of how each part would look as a pattern piece, complete with a scale (50 cm) and a key indicating the presence, for example, of folded quillwork. The intricacies of each group’s decoration of these common garments is explored in great detail here, a treasure trove for those studying specific Athapaskan groups. A range of aspects of Athapaskan outfits are at least mentioned in passing, including headwear, children’s clothing, belts, handwear.
Continuing the ascent from generalization to specific detail, the fourth chapter focuses on regional styles. Organized by geographic area more than by group, maps are again included for the reader’s benefit; each geographic area is inaugurated through “first contacts and principal sources,” much like the larger framework of the book. Sometimes rehashing the “pointed-tunic-and-moccasin-trouser” styles, this section highlights exquisite items specific to certain areas, such as a headdress made from goose and eagle feathers in the Dena’ina communities of the “South-Central Alaska-Alaska Plateau” region. Significantly more information about the Gwich’in and Dena’ina traditions have been recorded, and these groups are accorded much more space in the book. But each group that can be addressed is explored through the extant objects and contemporary photographs that give the reader a sense of how this clothing was truly worn and how it looks on a body.
As the primary chapters draw to a close, so does the nineteenth century. Thompson addresses the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in a short and necessary epilogue. Legacies of the use, practice, and making of Athapaskan clothing and accessories are in danger of disappearing, like many native languages and other oral traditions, although interest in preserving not only the what but the how is growing among younger generations. The strengths and weaknesses of oral traditions are not approached here–this is a celebration and appreciation of traditional clothing, not a sociological discussion–but it is interesting to consider that the detailed writing and recording of this clothing as a scholarly work was done by a non-Athapaskan woman. Thompson mentions fashion labels run by young Athapaskans, many using materials such as locally-caught fur, and records that some young people are using information and patterns from the Museum of Civilization to recreate nineteenth-century clothing from their ancestral groups. Which is more vital to the preservation of Athapaskan clothing traditions?
The volume closes with excellent appendices, listing Athapaskan clothing in museum collections around the world and a sampling of full-length artifact analyses, which are very helpful to the scholar and the budding collections manager. Rounded off with a flush works-cited section, the book deserves the adjectives “authoritative” and “definitive” given by Thompson’s contemporaries at international museums as well as in Athapaskan communities.
Number 69 in the series “Native and Northern” series by publisher McGill-Queens University Press, Women’s Work, Women’s Art continues an important tradition of ethnographic and material culture writing about native cultures. Somehow it is true that many works have been written about native North American cultures and that the subject is overlooked in the field of clothing history. Extensively documented and cited, this book is also beautiful, which goes a long way toward reaching audiences that may be turned off by drier scholarly studies. Comprehensive but straightforward, Women’s Work, Women’s Art is an exciting resource for a range of scholars and an interesting, engaging read for the layperson.
Opening Photo Credit: Front Cover of Women’s Work, Women’s Art: Nineteenth-Century Northern Athapaskan Clothing by Judy Thompson. McGill-Queens University Press, 2013.
Read more book reviews on Worn Through here!
Cruikshank, Julie. Athapaskan Women: Lives and Legends. National Museums of Canada, 1979.
Duncan, Kate C. Northern Athapaskan Art: A Beadwork Tradition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989.
Simeone, William E. and James W. VanStone. “‘And He Was Beautiful’: Contemporary Athapaskan Material Culture in the Collections of the Field Museum of Natural History” Fieldiana (Anthropology) 10, November 1986.
Thompson, Judy. Preliminary Study of Traditional Kutchin Clothing in Museums. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1972.
Thompson, Judy. Pride of the Indian Wardrobe: Northern Athapaskan Footwear. Toronto: Bata Shoe Museum and University of Toronto Press, 1990.
Thompson, Judy. From the Land: Two Hundred Years of Dene Clothing. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1994.