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Montreal’s McCord Museum: preserving the First Peoples’ cultural heritage for future generations

Still made and worn today, the amauti is a living legacy that dates back thousands of years. This amauti is an example of the Nunatsiarmiust style now preferred by many women because of the roomy comfort it provides to both mother and infant. Amauti, Theresa Komaksuitiksak, 1980. Air Canada donation, M995. 19.15.1-3 © Mccord museum.

This is a special year for Canada and for my hometown Montreal as they both mark another benchmark year in their respective histories. In recognition, I want to include a piece about a cultural gem that is well worth adding to your bucket list of must-see museums should you ever be fortunate enough to visit. Here, Montreal-born writer Andrea Grimaud gives us her impressions as to why the McCord Museum is so worth your while to experience.

Throughout the year, Montreal’s McCord Museum mounts stunning temporary exhibitions dedicated to illuminating for citizens and out-of-towners alike the history, people and communities of this vibrant, multicultural city, which this year celebrates its 375th birthday just as Canada marks its 150th.

Montreal pops the champagne on another significant anniversary this year: 50 years ago the city hosted the World’s Fair, “Expo 67”, to great international acclaim and until October 1st the McCord is celebrating with an exuberant look at the colorful, flower-power fashions of the Fair in the temporary exhibition Fashioning Expo 67 that’s an effervescent blast from the past.

Fashioning Expo 67 exhibits the bright and distinctive uniforms in national colors worn by (right to left – furthest left unidentified) American, British and Italian hostesses at the Expo 67 world fair. Photo courtesy McCord Museum.

The McCord — a teaching & research institution as well as a museum

While many of the Museum’s temporary exhibitions fulfill the important mandate of presenting and preserving the city’s and the nation’s cultural heritage for future generations none fulfills the McCord’s mission better than its permanent exhibition Wearing our Identity – the First Peoples Collection.

With a nod to the Canadian national treasure that it is, I found the exhibition tucked protectively behind the intimate main lobby of the McCord’s Arts-and-Crafts inspired, three-story greystone located in the city’s central core.

Naturally, I discovered only a fraction of the collection’s 16,450 archaeological and historical artifacts displayed, but each item on view is significant in teaching the role clothing has played in the development, preservation and communication of the social, cultural, political and spiritual identities of the First Nations peoples, Inuit and Métis.

Identity and tradition reflected in dress

Headdress, Anonymous, Eastern Woodlands, Aboriginal: Iroquois, Mohawk, 1900-1908, felt cap, commercial hide, wool cloth, feathers, silk ribbons, hide thong, brass bells, glass beads, cotton thread, cotton string, 40.5 x 57 cm, M14376 © McCord Museum.

 

The distinct Aboriginal nations making up Canada’s First Nations have identities that are intimately linked to their dress. Beyond its main purpose of protection, dress tells us the age and status of the individual and to which nation he or she belongs. It also honours the wearer’s role and highlights their close relationship with nature.

Upon entering the spacious hall, my eyes immediately fell upon a breathtaking beaded, feather headdress with fur embellishment. A group of wide-eyed youngsters gathered around it, mesmerized.

The McCord’s Education Department has created educational activities for school groups ranging from toddlers to teenagers and teachers in training. Photo courtesy McCord Museum.

 

All the artifacts on display were intrinsic to daily life, including such items as baskets and pots, cutlery and hunting equipment. Glass display cases hold traditional sewing tools such as an ulu, scraper, needle, awl, thimble and needle case. Alongside them are strands of tendon, not yet made into sinew to stitch hides together.

Visitors are immediately made aware that nothing was wasted. Animals hunted and caught were used in their entirety for food and clothing, for decoration or as a tool. Sewing implements were made from bone and animal hides were continuously worked until supple as cloth.

Pouch, Anonymous, Western Subarctic, Aboriginal: Chipewyan or Western Cree or Métis, 1875-1900, canvas, wool cloth, cotton cloth, glass beads, paper, cotton thread, 24.5 x 24 cm, M12526, © McCord Museum.

 

While the majority of the items in this stunning collection were worn by men, most were laboriously and lovingly made by women for their husbands and children. In a sense, this collection is also a tribute to women’s skill and creativity.

Practical yet beautiful, too

Boots, Hanna Alooloo, Central Arctic, Inuit: Iglulingmiut, 1987, Sealskin, seal fur, synthetic sinew, polyester or cotton cloth, wool yarn, 65 x 11.2 x 27.5 cm, Gift of Arnold and Betty Kobayashi Issenman, M2000.28.1.1-2, © McCord Museum.

 

It’s easy to see how the knee-high, sealskin boots protected Inuit hunters in the cold, dry winter months, while de-haired sealskin boots suited the wet spring and summer. I stared at the sealskin boots on display, remembering a factory-made pair I had owned 40 years ago, surely not as resistant to a Canadian winter.

Displayed nearby, more delicate First Nations deerskin moccasins showed soft, faded hues of orange-coloured vegetable dyes. Others were heavily beaded for ceremonial occasions.

Moccasin, Anonymous, Aboriginal: Iroquois or Dene, 1800-1830, Tanned and smoked deer hide, porcupine quills, sheet metal cones, horsehair, silk?, sinew, vegetable fibre, organic dyes, 8.5 x 10.5 x 26.7 cm, Gift of The Misses Sweeny, ME940.1.1.1-2, © McCord Museum.

 

Garments were tailored according to role. Men’s shirts and coats had roomy shoulders to facilitate hunting and often sported amulets of bone to protect the wearer and help them in the hunt.

Inuit women’s parkas or amauti, such as the one on display (see main photo above) had a large and comfortable baby pouch just below the hood and two apron flaps, front and back. Even today, many Inuit women wear an amauti, though cloth has gradually replaced skins.

With its rich colours, fine beadwork and practicality this stunning amauti is wearable artwork at its finest. As well, the simple styles and intricate embroidery of the Mi’kmaqs and the delicate beadwork of the Chipewyan and Western Cree First Nations or Métis rivaled the European beadwork of its day.

Timeless works of craftsmanship

Jacket, Anonymous, Eastern Woodlands, Aboriginal: Mi’kmaq, 1845-1855, Wool cloth, ribbon (figured), cotton cloth, glazed cotton, silk ribbon, metal brooch, metal beads, glass beads, cotton thread, 54 x 45.5 cm, Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord, M8371.1, © McCord Museum.

 

Modern-looking skirts and bolero jackets were worn by Mi’kmaq women as early as the 1700s and still impress with their elegance, colorful trim and beautiful, handcrafted detail. The collection features an elegant, mid-19th century wool suit decorated with miniscule glass-and-metal beading and silk ribbon appliqué in traditional geometric motifs, all reminiscent of those painted on earlier hide clothing.

From past creations of hide and wool to present day creations that we see depicted in an exciting display of contemporary Aboriginal artists’ work, the McCord’s permanent exhibition explores in depth and across the centuries the notions of tradition and identity and how they are bound up and exquisitely expressed through the clothes of the First Nations people. 

 

Photo, McCord Museum.

Wearing Our Identity. The First Peoples Collection.
McCord Museum
690 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, Quebec, H3A 1E9
Tel: 1-514-861-6701
Email: info.mccord@mccord-stewart.ca
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