Doing Museum Research on Gwich’in Material Culture & Tips for Visiting Collections

Close up of Gwich'in Mens Summer Tunic-Detail.

Gwich’in Men’s Summer Tunic, c.1860, British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

An exciting part of reclaiming Gwich’in artistic practice is visiting Gwich’in pieces held in museum collections. This work is very important to better understand Northern Dene material culture and its relationship to Teetl’it Gwich’in in particular. As I’ve said before, a key part of Shinli Niintaih is researching my people’s beading, sewing and other Gwich’in artistic practices. Whether it is through hide tanning with my mother, studying centuries-old Northern Dene floral beadwork techniques, or learning about Gwich’in use of dentalium shells and trade beads, I’ve always ensured my practice is part of maintaining knowledge of Gwich’in material culture. A vital part of this is sharing my experiences along the way.

Some of the Gwich’in/Northern Dene pieces that I have come across during my visits include beautiful beaded baby belts, vadzaih (caribou) hide outfits, birch bark baby carriers, pointed toe moccasins, steel knives with beaded cases, and a doll made entirely out of hide decorated with trade beads, porcupine quills and natural dyes. These pieces were collected between the early- and mid-19th century with some into the 20th century.  Most of which were probably removed from their territory over a century ago.

Gwich'in Babiche Bag

Gwich’in Babiche Bag, c.1878. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

I have a deep appreciation of Gwich’in artistic practices, particularly beadwork, because older styles contain intricate details that deserve to be maintained. To me, the old floral styles represents cultural pride, our connections to our lands, and created a uniqueness for each Gwich’in (and Dene) region in the North.  Over time, certain traditions are falling out of use, so I document older works of art in both academic texts and museum holdings, while discussing Gwich’in art forms with elders and practising artists in my homeland. It is my hope that this work contributes to the further protection of Gwich’in material culture and the revitalization of our art forms. I am thankful to have learned from many teachers, mentors and artist friends who have generously shared their knowledge with me on this journey.


Gwich’in Beaded Pointed Toe Moccasins, c. 1890. Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Ontario. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

Over the past four years I have visited many museum collections. My first step is to look through the museum’s online database, and then make an appointment to visit the collection. Visiting a museum collection allows you to see art forms that are not long produced. It has also helped me relearn old sewing techniques and to reclaim the use of old materials. During these visits, I am able to visit with powerful pieces of art that bring me closer to the artistic practices of my people. When, I am with these pieces, I often wonder: Who made these items? How did they do it? What tools and techniques did they use? Sadly, it is rare for museums to have this information. This is usually due to the age of the item combined the fact that the person who acquired it did not adequately document this information. In most cases, I am left to make educated guesses, based on my own experience and discussion with knowledge holders, on how these pieces were made.

Gwich'in/Northern Dene Doll

Gwich’in/Northern Dene Doll, late 19 century. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.


It is important to me that we consider Indigenous material cultures as living pieces, not ancient “objects” or “artifacts” that are stored in museums. All Indigenous art served a purpose, and they continue to hold power and embody ancestral teachings. They are our (still living) relatives. I am always grateful for the discussions and teachings from friends, mentors and colleagues who have taught me about this topic, because it drives my practice as a Indigenous researcher.  It helps me reclaim ancestral knowledge in a culturally-grounded way. So my approach to learning, understanding and visiting Gwich’in art helps broaden my work in repatriating knowledge, revitalizing land-based learning practices, and cultural healing.


Gwich’in/Northern Dene Beaded Baby Belts, early-mid 20th century. Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

To date, I have visited museum collections in Canada, England, Sweden, and the United States. Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about the role of museums, seeing how thousands of living Indigenous art pieces are kept away from communities and the families of those who created them. However, despite these items being far away from their homelands, I am also appreciative that they are being protected and there are opportunities to visit them. Every time I visit a collection I wish that elders in my community or members of my family were with me to see such beautiful artistic works. I do hope that my community will one day have the opportunity to take these amazing living pieces back and to protect them for future generations.

Gwich'in/Northern Dene Knives.

Gwich’in/Northern Dene Knives, mid-late 19th century. British Museum, London. It is believed these knives belonged to great Gwich’in Chief and trade middle man Shayaanuti’. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

During these visits, I was able to see amazing Gwich’in artistic works that my ancestors made with their own hands. Seeing them was like visiting a relative, and like a relative I spoke to them and witnessed the beauty that each possess. At my last museum visit in England I saw a Gwich’in men’s vadzaih tunic, that I was able to touch and feel. I cried seeing that it was so beautiful. These outfits were made without steel needles, likely only using an awl and sinew. Some of the seams and stitches are hardly visible because they are so intricately stitched. One of the things I noted about these outfits was how quillwork was once the essential art form for Gwich’in. In these days, vadzaih clothing was finely decorated and dyed using natural materials found on our lands.



Gwich'in Mens Summer Tunic

Gwich’in Men’s Summer Tunic, late 19th century. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

Some outfits in these collections still have vibrantly coloured quills, the same colours used long ago. This is remarkable because natural dyes often fade over time. There is also incredible amount of detail in these outfits, it is common, for example, for each individual fringe on caribou hide tunics to be wrapped with dyed porcupine quills with a dinvi’ (silverberry willow seed) bead added as an accent detail. This technique was repeated many times with some tunics have between 400-600 dinvi’ beads! (see photo above). As someone who works with dinvi’, I know first-hand how challenging it is to attach them to fringes. This was something my Gwich’in ancestors did with mastery to make beautiful clothing, a public display of who we are as a people. 

Eastern Athapaskan Floral Beadwork.

Northern Dene Floral Beadwork, late 19 century Sub-Arctic. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

As the fur trade brought new goods to the North, quillwork and dinvi’ was slowly replaced by glass trade beads and other materials imported from Europe. The adoption of floral motifs also influenced the way Gwich’in made art. Floral beadwork is still widely practiced today in many Gwich’in communities, and for those who want learn older beading motifs, museums or private collections have many inspirational pieces.

Gwich'in Floral Beadwork

Gwich’in Floral Beadwork, c.early 20th century. Collected in Fort McPherson, NWT in 1929. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

While beading remains an important part of contemporary Gwich’in artistic practice, dentalium shells was a key part of Gwich’in aesthetics, but has fallen out of use in many communities. In the Teetl’it Gwich’in dialect the word for dentalium shells was a’tthan’, meaning small bones. They were used in all kinds of jewelry, like septum piercings and earrings, in addition to be used to decorate clothing, knife cases, mitts, and other prized items. A’tthan’ was brought from the Pacific coast to our territories through the inland trade routes established by Indigenous nations long before the fur trade. A’tthan’ was considered a high value trade item. Because of its expense, those wore it were considered high status. Those Gwich’in who were able to gather enough wealth to trade for A’tthan’ in large quantities often these shells were traded with other Indigenous nations, including Inuit on the Arctic coast. As evidence of its importance, I have found old illustrations on Gwich’in a’tthan’ adornment on jewelry, knife cases, and clothing.

Gwich'in Adornment

Photo of Gwich’in Man in full adornment. Image found in Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Russia, Smithsonian Institution Press (1988). Photo by Elaine Alexie.

At the British Museum I saw an Inuit earring that resembled a design commonly used by Gwich’in. It is likely that Gwich’in and Inuit styles influenced one another. Trade routes between our peoples brought many essential goods, such as furs and tools, and with it artistic exchange.

Inuit Style Dentalium Earrings.

Inuit Dentalium Earrings. mid/late 19 century. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

Researching Gwich’in adornments has inspired me to recreate many of these old styles. I credit the illustrations and the photos I’ve found on a’tthan’ and dinvi’, and other Gwich’in artists from Alaska, in helping me reclaim this knowledge. Museums are important places to see old items that can influence and bring inspiration for new works in the contemporary context. This has been instrumental in my work and approach in reclaiming knowledge of Gwich’in art. Across the North, a’tthan’ fell out of use but is making a comeback in jewellery and garment making among Gwich’in artists.  This is so great to see. We need to have more Gwich’in artists incorporating older techniques and materials, and using them in new ways.

Dentalium Necklace with Russian Blue Trade Beads.

Dentalium Necklace with Russian Blue Trade Beads. Mid-late 19 century Northwest Coast, North America. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie.

When viewing living pieces in a collection, it was always hard to say goodbye and let them be tucked back away in boxes until the next time they are taken out. I do appreciate how museums keep them (a lot of these living items may not be here otherwise) but I hope one day that these items are returned to their homelands to be taken care of by their own people. 

Northern Dene/Athapaskan Birch Bark Baby Carrier.

Northern Dene/Athapaskan Birch Bark Baby Carrier, late 19 century Alaska. British Museum, London. Photo by Elaine Alexie. 

Are you interested in visiting a museum to view their collection? Here are some tips I’ve learned that can help you:

1) Research what you want to see ahead of time. Check out books or publications on Indigenous material culture, specifically the art form that you are interested in. Once I started researching one area of Gwich’in material culture, it expanded to many, many others! A great place to start is speaking to relatives or elders who may have some first-hand knowledge on the topic. It can lead to other sources as well.

2) Check online museum databases for specific information on pieces they have in their collections. Most museums provide an online catalog of their collection, and they keep records of everything that they have. Libraries are another way to find information on what you are looking for.

3) Contact the museum curators and get to know them. These are the people that you will be communicating with the most and will help you arrange visits. They can also assist you in accessing their records and other information.  They are your point of contact at the museum and are responsible for organizing your visit with the collection.

4) Each museum has their own rules about visiting their collections. It is best to find out what is required for the specific museum you want to visit.  Not all museums are the same and the visit needs to be planned ahead of time. Some museums may be easy to book, but other high traffic museums may require at least 6-12 months booking ahead of time. So double-check what is required and make sure to do this well in advance.

5) Bring materials to help record your time visiting collections. I find bringing a notebook and camera helps to document pieces I am viewing, this helps me go back and see the item again, even after I’ve left. Again, check the rules by asking the curators what is allowed or not (i.e. no flash photography). Be sure to arrive early. Your time visiting is precious, enjoy it!