Dinvi’: Reclaiming and Working with Silverberry Beads

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With the drop in seasonal temperatures and the colors now changing, this time of year marks one of my favorite activities: picking Dinvi’ (also known as Silverberries or Wolf Willow Berries). As I have been thinking of future sewing projects on Gwich’in material culture, working with Dinvi’ has opened a door to learning more in depth about my people’s use of an item that comes directly from the land. I had first come across this special plant and the berry it produces when reading on Gwich’in material culture practices, specifically from other researchers who have analyzed museum collections.  It has been gratifying and uplifting experience working with the plant and berries once I was able to identify and harvest them. I want to share a little bit of my experience working with this special plant and provide tips on how best to harvest its berries. I do not claim to be an expert and I am still learning working with them. I had consulted several of my elders and all have no memory or recollection of their families working with it. There exists generations among Gwich’in where its use and practice have died out. It is my hope that by sharing my experience that it will inspire other Gwich’in to work with it too. In doing so, we are reclaiming a part of our cultural identity and ensuring the survival of the knowledge and practice of Dinvi’ for future generations.

For those that are fairly new to Dinvi’, I’ll give you a quick primer.  

Along with porcupine quills, the Dinvi’ seed is one of the oldest beading materials in North America used by Indigenous peoples long before the arrival of glass beads. Long before European arrival, Gwich’in people lived sustainably by utilizing the land’s seasons and the abundant resources provided to us by the natural world. Living off the land required incredible knowledge of our territories. Our ancestors knew our lands and rivers intimately, as well as how to use plants and animal products to make everything they needed. Gwich’in also figured out how to decorate these finely made items, and usually adorned their clothing and tools to show pride in who they were. These adornments displayed exceptional skill of the Gwich’in who created them.

From many visits to museums all over the continent, I have learned that Gwich’in were master quill-workers and have used quills with Dinvi’ to decorate our Vadzaih (Caribou) skin clothing and other garments. I have seen items where you can hardly see a seam or stitch, it is so finely crafted, and most likely created with just a bone awl and sinew (and no needle). Some of the finest works in these collections show vibrant work made from naturally dyed from raw materials taken from the land, such as berries, moss, or charcoal. Among the quills lies a dark bead with a yellow stripe hanging on the Vadzaih fringes along the colorful and vibrant quills. This is Dinvi’.

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Gwich’in Mens Outfit. Royal Ontario Museum, March 2018. Photo by Author.

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Close up of outfit. Antique Beads, Natural Dye Quill work and Dinvi’ beads. Photo by Author.

I came across this word from an old Teetł’it Gwich’in noun dictionary that was published in the 1970s. I confirmed this word with one of the linguists that consulted for the dictionary. He recalled that Teetł’it Gwich’in elder Andrew Kunnizzi described the berry with the word Dinvi’ that translates as, “Berry with Black Seeds Used for Beads.”

Silverberry willow is a hardy plant that can be found growing along gravel river bars, river banks, along dry slopes and on the edge of meadows.  It has a bright silver-green foliage and produces a fragrant yellow blossoms that come out in early June. It smells a bit like honey. The plant growth range is identified primarily in the Western/Boreal regions in North America. It extends from the North (Alaska, Yukon, NWT) through to BC, the Prairies, all the way east to Quebec, south to Utah and reaching into Minnesota.

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Silverberry Willow with full foliage. Photo by Author.

Silverberry Willow is part of the olive tree family and used for medicinal and food purposes by Indigenous peoples throughout its habitat. The berry is a rich source of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as several minerals, and is source of essential fatty acids. The berry was sometimes added to pemmican, used as a soup thickener and can also be used to make soap. The bark of the willow was used to weave blankets, clothing, ropes & baskets, and taken medicinally a tonic was used to treat frostbite or sunburns. The berry is also known to be a food source for Moose and Deer.

 Some of the common names used for the plant are Eleagnus commutate, Wolf Willow, Silver Willow, Buffalo Willow, or Rosary Bush. Each berry the Silverberry plant produces is a single, dark-brown, fluted seed. Once fully cleaned and softened by water, you can string them to dry and use as beads.

Want to pick & harvest Dinvi’? Here are some tips.

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Workshopping Materials on Dinvi’. Photo by Author

These are not absolute rules to do it correctly, I did what worked for me. So, do what you think may be best with the items you have on hand.

  1. Take time to identify the plant and look for its dominant characteristics. Look for them on gravel bars, river banks, and mountain slopes or the edge of meadows..  Check for the silver color on the bark, the leaves and berries. I found it was best to find one that was well-established, as they produce the largest and most numerous berries.  The willow is considered to be a nitrogen fixer in soil and can produce a lot of shoots in a given area. Look for large bunches. Once I was able to figure out what kind of plant to look for based on its characteristics, I could find it almost everywhere.

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    Dinvi’ berries ready to be picked. Photo by Author.

  2. Take ONLY what you need. Leave an OFFERING to the plant for taking its berries. This can be tobacco, coin of value, matches or something that value to give. Treat this as an exchange for using something that comes from the land. This is a fundamental teaching in Gwich’in culture. The Dinvi’ is medicine after all. All things taken from the land should be paid back in some way to show respect to the plant, and to the land in which you are on.
  3. Once you have picked the berries, you will need to clean them.  Have these items on hand:
  • A few bowls (to discard the seed coverings, one for the seed)
  • Rubber gloves (optional)
  • Water
  • Stove Top Stock pot or Sauce pan (large enough to cover the seeds with water)
  • Strainer
  • Imitation Sinew
  • Scissors
  • Awl (optional)
  • Large Size Needle

I find it is best to clean the berries right away. The berry produces a green power and the seed is encased by it.  You can use rubber gloves as the power can leave a residue on your fingers or hands. Once you have cleaned it, put it in water.  You can use a container with a lid or warm water up in a bowl, if you prefer. Let the beads soak a little and then put in a stockpot for a low boil (or in this case a lid container with warm / hot water). At this point, the water changes color to a dark brown.  I change the water a few times and each time I make sure to shake the beads in lid container to get any extra layers off the seeds. Strain the water and let cool.

 

Now to string them. Thread a needle with imitation sinew or something similar. Be MINDFUL when working with the seeds.  These beads were so special to our people and I like to think as objects of medicine. It took me a few tries when piercing the beads with my small awl, as some do tend to split. Hang to dry.

It takes a few days for the seeds to dry into beads and the stripe color brightens overtime.

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Dried Dinvi’ Beads. Ready to be used. Photo by Author.

As I have mentioned, working with Dinvi’ has been very gratifying. It has been empowering.  Like beadwork, it teaches patience and to be in a good mind and heart, especially with the last two stages of cleaning and processing. It is a beautiful seed that becomes transformed into a bead that can be used for many things. I love working with this plant and hope to continue doing so for more years to come.

Here are some items I have made using Dinvi’ fabricating Gwich’in old style adornment using old techniques found in resource books and contemporary styles that I designed. 

 

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I feature items from time to time on my online shop. You can check out my website here.

Thanks for reading and I hope this post can be helpful to you when working with Dinvi’!

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Author standing amongst Silverberry Willows, July 2018.

To follow my research journey in learning more about Gwich’in Material Culture, you can follow me on Instagram here and on my Facebook page.

Hai Cho – Many Thanks!

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Please Note

While I am open to sharing this knowledge with non-Indigenous peoples, I request to not appropriate this knowledge for your own interests and using our own cultural designs for profit. I am sharing this information to help my people regain the knowledge of a special bead that was lost over many generations. Please respect that.

Some website resources I would recommend:

Other Indigenous peoples that use Dinvi’ check out this news link.

http://plantwatch.naturealberta.ca/choose-your-plants/wolf-willow/

http://galileo.org/kainai/wolf-willow/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeagnus_commutata

Some books to read:

“Living on the Land” Indigenous Women’s Understanding of Place Kermoal & Altamirano-Jimenez (2016)


“Long Ago Sewing We Will Remember”, Thompson & Kritsch (2005)

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