One of the better things about living in rural Canada in a majority First Nations province is the way that people still rely heavily on the land as a major source of income. For many people in Ashern, farming, particularly of cattle is their livelihood. Most of the men enjoy hunting and fishing as weekend pastimes. I have heard that it is permitted to hunt certain animals at different times of the year and that sometimes, depending on the season, instead of shotguns it is only permitted to hunt with bows and arrows! Anyway, while I could write a post (and perhaps I will at a later date) on hunting and farming, I’d actually like to dedicate this post to the both practical and creative crafts that are traditionally aboriginal.
Many First Nations’ crafts serve several purposes; they usually have some kind of use other than just to be appreciated for their artistry. One of the first Native American objects that intrigued me for its aesthetics as well as its story is the Dream Catcher. These spidery web-like wheels come in all kinds of colours and sizes with beautiful beads woven in, large silky feathers and sometimes with images of magnificent creatures such as wolves, eagles or bears. The idea is that in the night air come good dreams and bad dreams. The story goes that the bad dreams will get stopped in the feathers and snagged in the web of the dream catcher; whereas the good dreams are free to go wherever they please.
Some ornaments are fashioned out of ‘leftovers’ and are actually quite stunning. Traditionally, First Nations people used as much of an animal as possible once they had killed it. The hide for making leather products such as boots, jackets and even tipis, furs were and still are used for warmth such as linings and rugs, the flesh is obviously a source of food and bones could be used for a number of things including decoration such as jewellery and ornaments. Today, in order to help sustain these communities many decorative pieces are sold. For example, in a local shop in town intricate carvings of birds are made from Buffalo horns which would otherwise have gone to waste.
Polar bears, seals and other animals carved from soapstone make attractive ornaments while bowls and cooking slabs were traditionally made from soapstone. In Ashern from time to time travelling artists come through on their way North selling carvings and striking metallic engravings which capture the light. There really are an abundance of artistic native products to be found in Canada.
Perhaps my favourite traditional products are the shoes and boots known as Mukluks and Moccasins. In the winter months I have not found anything warmer or more comfortable than my Muks. Traditionally, Canadian aboriginals used Mukluks to hunt in the snow, made with seal fur and often adorned with beads and pompoms. Manitoba has several locations which sell authentic handmade Mukluks including individual designs displayed in boutiques such as at the The Forks Market or the company Manitobah. Historically, Moccasins are the outdoor footwear of North American people for forest and plains environments. They are handmade and simply stitched from soft leather and usually decorated with beautiful, colourful patterned embroidery.
In any case, if you’re travelling to Canada, especially the Prairie Provinces or rural areas think about some of the above as alternative souvenirs to maple syrup, moose tee-shirts and hockey pucks.