Being A Gwich’in Indigenous Artist In Canada
My name is Tania, I am a Gwich’in woman and I live in Canada. I am a moose hide tanner, an artist and jewellery designer.
But I was born in the French Alps.
How did an indigenous woman of the North Americas end up in France, you ask? Well, my mother, who is Gwich’in, was a four-time Olympic cross-country skier. She fell in love with my Swedish dad, who at the time worked for Rossignol, a French manufacturer of ski equipment. So yes, I am Gwich’in and Swedish, but I don’t identify as half as this is a concept that was brought in through blood quantum. Blood quantuming is a policy that reinforces the genocide of Indigenous people in America where indigenous people are only considered indigenous if they have a certain percentage of indigenous DNA in their blood.
It was not until I moved to Canada at 15 years old that I was able to reconnect with my Gwich’in culture on Gwich’in land. My aunty gifted me these beautiful moccasins that they were extremely special to me. I only wore them on special occasions, and every time I did I felt proud to represent who I was. I found myself wanting to adorn myself with something I could wear all the time that connected me to my culture.
I also really wanted to learn traditional knowledge. My grandparents were trappers in Northern Canada, so I wanted to learn how to trap small animals and tan hides. However, it was very challenging to start getting involved. Through seeking out opportunities to reconnect to these ways, I found my passion for creating jewelry and tanning hides.
Becoming A Jewelery Maker
While attending school, I had the chance to do an apprenticeship with renown jeweller Keri Ataumbi. She took me under her wing and really taught me the tools to start my own jewelery company. I create adornments that celebrate our identity by using traditional materials and designs, and pairing them with contemporary techniques and materials such as silver and precious stones. I can finally adorn others and myself with pieces that are culturally connected.
I try to feature strong and beautiful individuals who are of mixed heritage in my jewelery campaigns. I want to raise awareness of who we are in this modern day and age. The indigenous population comes from all different types of backgrounds, ancestry and experience. We are not so different from everybody else but are unique people at the same time.
Becoming A Hide Tanner
Learning how to tan hides was key to reconnecting with elders, knowledge holders and the land. At the time, it was quite hard to find opportunities to learn this traditional practice. So when my friend Melaw invited me to be a part of her project, I jumped at the opportunity.
I worked and completed my first moose hide in 2012. It was hard and required a lot of physical and mental strength. For two weeks, we worked collectively removing the hair, and the flesh of the moose skins, we then stretched them on a wood frame and dry scraped them thinner. Once it is an even thickness throughout the skin, which is really hard to tell as a novice, we then applied the brain paste to help soften it. A combination of soaking it in warm water, twisting it, scraping it dry and smoking it will soften the hide. Even after two weeks of working long hours every day, it still wasn’t soft enough so I had to continue the work under the supervision of elder, Madeleine Catholique. Through this whole process, I learned many protocols about respecting the spirit of the animal, respecting the land and the knowledge that was being transmitted to me. I also learned to identify and gather the right woods to smoke the hides. I learned to take care of a camp. I learned how to ask questions and build strong relationships with my fellow hide tanners. It really taught me a different type of humility because I felt like a baby in my own culture.
I’ve also used my platforms to raise awareness on protecting the caribou and their birthing ground the Arctic National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska. This area is known to the Gwich’in as the “sacred place where life begins”. It is the last intact piece of wilderness in the United States. However, through the last U.S. tax bill, the U.S. government opened this region for resource extraction, which the Gwich’in Nation has fought to protect for over 30 years. This latest political upset will affect the Gwich’in all the way in Canada, because we rely on the caribou to feed ourselves, to clothe ourselves, for spirituality and for our culture. We have done this for thousands of years and we cannot live without the caribou.
I am also one of the founding members of a non-profit organization called Dene Nahjo. We are a collective of leaders who focus on innovation and cultural revitalization projects. For example, our first project was a traditional tool-making workshop. I wanted to make tools so I could tan hides. As a group, we brought ten participants from 8 different Indigenous nations to learn how to make traditional tools together. Our goal was to complete two tools each but we managed to make over 55. We organized a caribou hide tanning camp in the Arctic circle, where we went on to use the tools we had made. There we practiced the process with the guidance of our elder, Bertha Francis, who is a fluent Gwich’in speaker.
Since that first project 4 years ago, we have built a strong network of change-makers, hide tanners and leaders in communities across the North. We’ve organised events like the Indigenous Circumpolar Women’s Gathering, Urban Hide Tanning, Indigenous Emerging Leadership Workshops and Rites of Passage Gathering. My dreams of being connected to my culture and the land have finally materialised thanks to this amazing group of people who have become my family.
Traveling to Northern Canada
The Northwest Territories have 11 official languages. Over half the population is Indigenous! And thanks to historic treaties and modern land claims, we are free to live and to travel on our traditional lands. There are 33 communities spread across the massive territory (1.34 million square km), which is bigger than the State of Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma put together, or bigger than South Africa, with a population of only 44,000.
The Arctic is sometimes perceived as empty, but really we are actually pretty diverse. No two towns are the same, so what you’ll experience in Yellowknife will be completely different than driving up to the Arctic Ocean from Inuvik to Tuktoyuktuk. The people, landscape, and even the languages are unique to each town.
The cost of living is quite high in the Territories, and in smaller communities, it is expensive to access fresh food and essentials needs. This means we harvest animal and plants for food. Our people’s connection to the land and animals means we have protocols of respect for doing that. Hunters will share the meat with the community starting with the elders, mothers, and then their own families. We utilize every part of the animal, making tools with the bones, hides with the skin, thread with the sinew.
There is a beauty in this harsh environment. The northern lights illuminate the frigid skies during long cold winters and during the summer the sun never sets on the vast open landscapes and crisp bodies of water. There are two cultural activities that you must experience if you travel all the way to the Northwest Territories: drum dances and hand games.
Attending Drum Dances And Hand Games in First Nation Communities
Drum dances and hand games are no frills events that are organized by our First Nations communities. To find out when they happen is no easy task. You have to ask around town or call the local band office. Like many small towns, they most likely will give you just the last 4 digits of the phone number, but it is worth the search. You will discover the powerful caribou drum that will make you feel sounds you’ve never experienced before. The men will drum and sing old songs. It is beautiful to hear our languages in this way. Many people often know and recognize these songs, too. Proper attire is required if you don’t want to stand out: a simple pair of jeans and crew neck t-shirt is recommended!
The hand games are intense. The tournament can last 2 to 3 days and can go on until 4 or 5 in the morning and have teams from communities across the territory and beyond. People travel long distances for these traditional gambling games. You will discover indigenous style and swag at the tournaments, from young boys to elders, many come prepared and competitive each with their own style. It’s OK to not understand the rules of the game right away. You can ask almost anybody beside you. I personally like to just take everything in and observe, because you won’t experience this anywhere else in the world!
Traveling While Indigenous
As an indigenous woman I don’t really like to travel to places on my own. I would much rather travel with my crew, or meet my friends in their hometowns. Like when my friend Melaw Nakehk’o, who is Dehcho and Denesuline Dene, asked me to come with her to LA to help her get ready for her movie premiere. She was acting alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the Revenant.
Melaw was taking her cousin as her guest on the red carpet but told me to come along for the limo ride. Stuck in the slow traffic around the theater, we were so excited for the moment that was about to unfold. The car finally got to the red carpet and she says, “Just come with us. I’ll tell them you are my assistant.” I just went with the moment and was so thankful I did. No one even blinked an eye when I came with her. I didn’t have any foundation on and I wasn’t even wearing tights with a Buffalo Exchange dress. Despite not being red carpet prepared by any means, I had the best time, regardless. It was so cool to see her walk down the red carpet as all the photographers screamed at her so they could capture the right angles! My advice: know your talking points, your angles, and never be afraid to work it for the camera. (She ended up on the best dressed list that week!)
When interviewed, she used her platform to raise awareness on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and also brought up cultural appropriation within the fashion industry (i.e how important it is to collaborate with an indigenous artist instead of being “inspired” by us a.k.a stealing our culture for profit). It was so fun to be there for my friend on her big day! I won’t lie, it was also pretty crazy to meet Tom Hardy and Leonardo Dicaprio at the after party. Let’s just say, for my first time, LA didn’t disappoint!
With Melaw, her cousin and Tom Hardy at the premiere after party.
Nowadays, I mostly travel for work and to visit my partner who lives in the U.S. Even though I live in Canada, we still manage to find ways to meet with one another despite the long distance. We fell in love during college at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She’s a film director, writer, and overall badass. Despite our mediums being different, we still collaborate. I love working on creative projects with her. As an artist and jewellery designer, I make northern indigenous adornment that celebrates my identity with materials that come from the land, and she makes movies telling stories that come from her unique perspective as a modern-day Navajo and Lakota woman.
I love traveling with her; we usually meet up in a city for a film festival or conference and discover cute neighborhoods, and restaurants together. It is amazing being able to spend time with one another while experiencing new places and meeting new people.
Although we have been met warmly in various communities, discrimination is still a very real thing for her and I. Since I have lighter skin, I will sometimes enter an establishment first, to ensure we get better service. Unlike her, I do not experience the daily microaggressions as I navigate this world. On one of our first camping trips together, as we waited in line in this big lobby to get the access code to the showers, an older White lady had a loud and dramatic fit about how there was no room to stand as she stared directly at my partner. She made her so uncomfortable that my partner waited outside while I waited in line by myself. But this has happened on multiple occasions. Once a gas station attendee screamed at her for coming into the store to buy a water bottle. Or when she was on a business trip, her Uber driver made a big fuss recommending her this “amazing local restaurant and you must go to it before leaving town,” only to find out later that it was a dangerous, blatantly and openly racist establishment that won’t serve people of color.
So when we travel, we are pretty conscious of our safety since we are already a target as indigenous women. I’ve traveled to many places in the world, but the U.S. and Canada is where I’m most concerned for our safety. I know that if we went to play pool at a bar and vanished, the chances are the news article would say we were drinking and no one would try to find us since “we brought it upon ourselves”. We would just become another statistic. There is no empathy for indigenous people on colonized lands. The land, the children, the women and the men are being attacked constantly.
Sexuality In Indigenous Communities
I feel lucky because I have such a supportive family and group of friends that when I started dating Razelle no one really blinked an eye. I haven’t identified as queer, yet since I don’t feel like I’ve really changed on the inside. I just fell in love with a beautiful woman. Maybe it is because a lot of my friends, Indigenous and not, are queer but most are not part of the queer community. So we already have a supportive indigenous community that surround us and support our relationship so we never felt the need to look beyond that. I’ve never identified through my sexuality in the past and find it weird to do so today.
I fell in love with an indigenous woman. I feel really blessed for the people that are in my life. I surrounded myself with loving and accepting people before this, so even though I was slightly fearful, no one really blinked an eye when I told them I was dating her.
Being An Ally To First Nations Artists & Communities
We still need support and alliance from non-indigenous people. How you can support us and our communities is simple:
- Buy directly from Indigenous artists and artisans. Don’t buy from people who use terms like “Native-inspired”. Just because there is a piece of turquoise or a feather on it doesn’t make it native.
- Always remember: indigenous people don’t sell medicine, that’s just wrong. We have stories, knowledge, and authenticity in our work that you can’t find anywhere else. Don’t buy into super shady individuals selling “medicine this” or “animal spirit that”.
- Do some research, stay informed, and don’t be afraid to ask those who are indigenous about what is culturally appropriate.
- Instead of asking someone “What are you?” Ask us what Nation we belong to, or which family we are a part of. You might not know who you are interacting with if you let stereotypes influence your experience with people here and you might learn a lot more about someone that way.
- Listen to people when they talk. Let them finish their sentences as many speak more than one language. You might not be used to their accents.
- Remember to leave your privilege at the border. It will help you experience the North in a life altering way.
In the North, we are about strong relationships. We have unique stories, a diverse population and we are proud of our heritage. You might hear the craziest stories of hunting, traveling, or movie acting. In order to connect with us you need to put in the work. It might be hard to reach us unless you invest time in relationships. Far too often do we see people come to the North just to build their resumes only to leave shortly thereafter to better careers in the South. Indigenous people are invested in their respective nations as it is inherently part of their identity. We strongly care about the future generations and because of this our relationships to the land and people always comes first.
About The Author
Tania Larsson is a Gwich’in jewelry maker, hide tanner, and artist. She runs the art company, Tania Larsson, as well as co-founded the non-profit Dene Nahjo, which is an indigenous collective specializing in cultural revitalization and innovation projects. You can follow her work and journey by clicking on the social media buttons below: