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Art and Handicraft

Art in the wild

Many might think only craftsmen living at forts and trading posts practised the decorative arts, but that is not the case. Despite having little time, voyageurs often decorated the things they used every day, such as canoes and paddles. They even used the knots of tree trunks to carve bowls for eating and drinking. Decorated clothing, bags and moccasins came mainly from Native women.



Before the arrival of the Europeans, Aboriginal women used porcupine quills to adorn everyday objects. In exchange for furs, traders provided them with a metal awl to take the place of bone awls. The sharp-pointed tool was used for the following:

  • Puncturing holes in animal hides or tree bark
  • Knitting or decorating various objects
  • Basketwork

From quills to beads

At first, ornamental objects were mostly made using porcupine quills, animal horns, shells, bones, feathers or metal. European-supplied beads became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. These were longer-lasting and easier to work with. Consequently, First Nations women adapted their original quillwork designs to bead embroidery, depicting geometric figures and elements of nature in new ways.

Decorated bags

Decorated bags

Jewellery and embroidery

To make bracelets and necklaces, they threaded together the large beads using sinew or other cords made from deer, moose or caribou. They used smaller beads to decorate fabric or animal hides. Moccasins were decorated with bead patterns depicting elements of nature such as the sun or the celestial tree. Moccasin styles varied according to function and the tribe that made them. With European influence, floral designs replaced geometric shapes around the beginning of the 19th century.

Design on an Ojibwa flint bag

Design on an Ojibwa flint bag

Bags and baskets

Voyageurs and Native hunters carried their personal belongings in bags and pouches that Native women made. The women also wove and decorated baskets for storing food, medicine and plants. Harvesting of the materials used to weave them was a ritual, carried out year-round and accompanied by prayer and song.

Did you know?

Native floral art originates in the Great Lakes region and comes from the Métis and Native people who worked at missions and fur trading posts. Under European influence, they added more realistic images such as flowers to their traditional set of designs. This distinctive art earned them the name "flower beadwork people" among other Native tribes.

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