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Reflections on Painted Caribou Hide Workshops

by Margaret Orr

In the months of January, February, and
March 2020, I embarked on a journey to Ouje-Bougoumou, Mistissini, Eastmain,
Chisasibi, and Whapmagoostui in Eeyou Istchee (Quebec). My journey was to facilitate workshops that focused on the designs painted on caribou hide coats and other items of clothing and other belongings. Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) in Ouje-Bougoumou offered me the position to do the workshops
based on my contemporary art practice, extensive cultural knowledge from my
experiences living on the land, and because I had led research workshops for
the same project in summer 2019. I accepted the position and it was an honour
to be able to contribute to the reawakening of this art form related to my

I was
busy working on my degree 
show ’10,000 Drowned’ for my Master’s Degree in Fine
Arts at the University of Regina at the end of 2019. I didn’t have much time
to plan out my workshop before travelling to Ouje Bougoumou in January 2020. I quickly
jotted down ideas on how I would deliver the workshops. I had already began
preparing in August 2019 by exploring painting with ink on small pieces of
caribou skin, canvas and paper. I liked the way it looked and began to get
excited to teach the process to people at home in Eeyou Istchee.

Painting on caribou hide using pigments
made from minerals found in nature was done for ceremonial purposes and also to
beautify an object. When the  Europeans came
to trade and introduced glass beads and embroidery thread, painting on caribou
skin began to fade away, and many of the designs migrated to floral designs.
Whereas before, the designs were very geometric, with a lot of straight and
curvy lines. From what I can see, it seems the designs were inspired by the
landscape, animals, plants, migration, and the sky in our region. The work of
my ancestors was both highly detailed or very minimal. It seems it depended on
the artists and the materials available to create with, which would obviously
vary from season to season and year to year as we traveled through our
territory. From the stories I read and heard, clothing, ceremonial hides and
other items were painted so the animals can see them and being pleased with
what they saw, would come towards the hunters to offer themselves to sustain us.
This is how it was, every care was taken to be respectful to the animals, and
with the painted caribou-skin coats. Even though we have no historic examples
today I am sure that moose hide was also painted, with extra special care taken
to honour them, as they are a big animal and can feed many people.

When I was facilitating the workshops, I
had some resources with pictures and texts to use for discussion and for people
to look through. The main book they looked at that has a lot of pictures of designs made by our ancestors are found in the
book, “To Please the Caribou: Painted Caribou-Skin Coats worn by the Naskapi,
Montagnais, and Cree Hunters of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula,” by Dorothy
Burnham, who was a Conservator at the Royal Ontario Museum in the late 20th
century. For us, we found the photographs useful, but the text itself had a
great deal of conjecture or opinions that are presented as fact, when there are
many things that we will never know, or that we as Eeyou people have a
completely different understanding of because of the depth of understanding our
own culture, when compared to assumptions made by outsiders. On that note, we
have a project report that is forthcoming in an upcoming edition of KULA:
Knowledge Creation, Dissemination and Preservation Studies

In my workshops and artistic practice
inspired by the painted caribou belongings, I focused on where the inspirations
for the designs come from and the reasons for them. I also talked about what I
discovered from what I could understand based upon my own experiences living in
Eeyou Istchee. I had watched my mother, grandmother and other women in Fort
/ Chisasibi, the community where I grew up, sew designs on clothing like
mittens and moccasins. I noticed there was a lot of similarities between their
design elements and the ancient designs of our ancestors. I was also drawing
and painting similar designs when I was experimenting with art materials. I
know that the natural environment of the Chisasibi territory where I grew up
also influenced my work. I also think that the ability to create traditional
designs comes from blood memory, from our DNA, our genetic makeup. We all
inherit certain traits of our ancestors through our DNA. One of those traits is
artistic creativity.

For the workshops we used ink and acrylic
paint, paint brushes, calligraphy pens and goose feather quills. The surfaces
used to paint on were paper, canvas, and leather. ACCI supplied two small
caribou hides that had been fixed white, and the art supplies. This link takes you to the catalogue record for a painted hide created at the workshops in Summer 2019 – 2020.07.01 by Margaret and other Eeyou artists. The whole project has been funded by the Canada Council for the
Arts, in their ‘Creating,Knowing and Sharing : The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples’
funding stream. The printed resources I got from the ACCI library. The photographs featured in this blog are of finished works made
by participants, except for Whapmagoostui where students didn’t have time to
finish what they started but they did continue on after I left.


Ouje-Bougoumou was the first community to hold a workshop. It took
place in the Skills Workshop at Aanischaaukamikw (ACCI). During the workshops,
participants explored working with the paint pigments and painting and drawing
tools, gaining confidence in their creativity and enjoying the environment they
were working in. The outcome of the workshop produced some nice work.

This is a small purse made by Trifona Simard. She decided to paint on canvas, as she wanted to explore her talent before committing to painting on caribou-skin. Before she painted on the canvas, she practiced painting designs on paper until she gained confidence in handling the paint and the tools.

This is a small purse
made by Trifona Simard. She decided to paint on canvas, as she wanted to
explore her talent before committing to painting on caribou-skin. Before she
painted on the canvas, she practiced painting designs on paper until she gained
confidence in handling the paint and the tools.

Minnie Coonishish made
this laptop cover for herself. She used ink on some hide that she supplied
herself and sewed it together by sewing machine. She started it at ACCI and
finished it in Mistissini where she is living.

Mistissiniwas the next stop on my journey. With the
assistance of Jane Voyageur, the cultural coordinator, I set up the workshop in
the Neoskweskau Sports Complex. There happened to be a general assembly going
on at the same time, so I had quite a few visitors watching the participants as
they worked. There were different age groups who participated, including two

This little bag was
made for a little girl’s walking out ceremony. Her mother, Bethany Blacksmith,
painted on moose hide and caribou skin.

Jane Voyageur, who
likes to hunt and fish, made herself this gun case. She painted on canvas using
ink and the top is covered with caribou hide and a strip of bias tape.

Sealhunter Longchap made this bag for her husband when he goes hunting. She did
not change the way her piece of leather was cut from the caribou hide and craftily
used its form to create the bag after painting on the leather with ink. We can
see the floral and geometric designs she made. 

Eastmain was my third stop. We had the workshop
in the Cultural Centre beside the school. Some people made designs while some
people visited. One young girl came after school to paint on paper.  On the last day of the workshop, we had a
feast of moose, fish, and ptarmigan.

This three foot long banner
was painted on canvas by three sisters: Florrie Mayappo, Ena Weapenicappo, and
Kathleen Whiskeychan. I helped a bit. We made it to hang on their tent door.
The design is an old one found in the book, “To Please the Caribou.” It was nice
to sit around the table and paint together.

Chisasibi is the place I come from and it was nice to be back
there. We had the workshop in the Parish Hall. Some midwives who were training
and working in Chisasibi also participated. Two children also came and very
quickly picked up the concept of the designs and painted some on paper. Two men
came to make something, one a small banner and the other painted on his hunting

small bag was made by one of the older midwives, and I unfortunately don’t
remember her name. She used ink to paint on caribou hide. She said this was
here first time working with leather. She did practice painting on paper first.

the workshop in the Parish Hall was done, I went to the Cultural Camp to look
for people who were not able to come to the workshop. I was in luck, I found
two people, Janie and Charlie Pepabano, who were waiting for their stretched
raw caribou hide to freeze so they could scrape it. I showed them designs from
the written texts and the projects I was working on. They tried painting 
paper and small pieces of caribou hide until it was time for them to scrape the
frozen caribou hide. 

Janie and Charlie
Pepabano were at the Cultural Camp and were very interested in trying out the
inks. They tried painting on paper and caribou hide. They found the hide
absorbed the ink very well. It would have been nice to spend more time with
them as they shared some knowledge and stories about caribou and the past while
we were sitting around the table – this is when stories and our traditional
knowledge typically get passed on, in the kitchen, or while doing activities on
the land. 

Whapmagoostui,the only fly in community in Eeyou
Istchee, is one place I hadn’t been to since 1977. I was surprised how
much the place grew in size and population. The workshop was at Badabin Eeyou School with the secondary level students in the Cree Culture/Language
classroom. The teacher of the classroom was Louisa George, who had also
attended the research workshops in Summer 2019. She had some pictures of
traditional Cree subject matter that I used to show the students how the
ancient designs could be related to things in the pictures. While working, the
students often asked Louisa for the correct way to say words in Cree that
related to what they were learning about the caribou, the land, the language,
etc. I found out that the students are able to write whole essays in Cree.  Every time they came in the classroom, they
were eager and started to work right away. But, because of the schedule of
secondary school, students did not have the time to finish their projects in
one week but they planned to complete them after I left.

Most Badabin
Eeyou School students chose to first draw their designs on paper and then
transfer them onto canvas. Some students expressed their choice to make their
designs on canvas until they feel confident enough to be able to make them on
caribou hide. They liked to use their names in their designs.

We had planned to do one final workshop at
the hotel in Montreal where Cree patients and their families stay when they are
there for health care than cannot be provided in the region. Unfortunately this
was around the same time as the pandemic lock down starting in mid March, so we
have had to postpone this workshop. It was at this point that I returned to
Ouje Bougoumou, where I sheltered during the lockdown. During that time, I
explored the area around Ouje and found minerals and other organic materials
for my pigment experiments I wrote about in my previous blog, Making Paint Pigments.

My Samples

When I teach art, I like to show
participants sample of my work so they have a general idea of what a work in
progress and finished work looks like. This is to help them generate their own

Below are samples of things I
made for the painted caribou hide workshops.

These are two different painted canvas gun cases. I used ink to
paint with and both sides of the gun cases have the same design. One is sewn
together with a sewing machine and the other is sewn by hand. One of these is
now in the collections of Aanischaaukamikw – 2020.06.01

This is a completed
painted caribou-skin bag. I used ink to paint with. I gifted this to the
Whapmagoostui cultural coordinator, Joe Einish, who participated in the summer
2019 research workshops and now works as the Cultural Coordinator. Joe is
Naskapi and his mother made painted caribou coats in the past, one of which
they think was purchased by a museum but we have not been able to locate it

This is a work in
progress sample of a painted canvas bag that has yet to be sewn together. I
used ink to paint with.

After the workshops
were completed, I made these children’s mittens out of moose hide, and used ink
to paint with. The white trim and fringes are caribou hide. These mittens are
now in the collections of Aanischaaukamikw – 2020.06.02 ab

For more about Margaret’s art, please see this article in Nation magazine.

[1] Fort George was relocated in the 1980s to the current location of Chisasibi because of fears of flooding from a hydro electric dam.