Closeup of Velma Olson’s beadwork on Sidney Anderson’s 2015 graduation dress

To my mind, Honouring Our Future: Yukon First Nations Graduation Regalia is among the most important art exhibits to take place in the Yukon over the past 10 years. I invite you to consider the effects the art processes displayed have on the worlds we all inhabit here.

Honouring Our Future displays graduation regalia worn by high school graduates in the Yukon First Nations Graduation Ceremony. The Council of Yukon First Nations supports the Yukon First Nations Graduation Society in coordinating it.The ceremony has taken place since 1975. Mostly dresses, the exhibit includes slippers and other footwear, head dresses, vests and a drum. Outfits exhibited include those worn at graduations 20 years ago, but some of the garments were stitched as far back as 1987.

An abundance of outfits spills out of the gallery into the foyer at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre. Rich copper in elegant formline design, as well as inland styles of beadwork, tufting, antler, embroidery, melton and appliqué, silver cones, abalone buttons, paint – the makers of these works made ingenious use of any artistic resources they felt suitable to celebrate their graduates.

Even among the beadwork, styles range widely. I was particularly taken with Na-Cho Nyak Dun graduate Sydney Anderson’s dress, sewn by her mother, Velma Olson. The beadwork on its yoke gives me a feeling of bright freshness. She has combined beading and appliqué to create dimension in her flowers.

The dresses range from more traditional shapes to one-shoulder constructions, two-part, and even sleeveless. Imagery includes fireweed, roses, wolf and crow, and abstract flowers. Twelve of the 14 Yukon First Nations, as well as the Tahltan Nation, are represented in the exhibit. Autumn Jules (Skaydu.û, member of the Teslin Tlingit Council) says making her own dress in 2014 was a “three-month process that made me fall in love with designing and the world of fashion.” It won the “best dress” award in Vancouver’s Indigenous Fashion Week in 2017.

It is also interesting to see artists exhibiting in other Yukon art contexts listed among the makers. Blake Lepine designed the crests on Teslin-Tlingit Council graduate Shania Hogan’s blanket and apron, sewn by Robin Smarch. Teresa Vander-Meer Chassé, an Upper Tanana contemporary beadwork artist and member of the White River First Nation, contributed jewelry to Delilah Stephen-Bailey’s (Gah Gaay), and Samantha Stephen-Bailey’s – (Nelnah) outfits, both also from White River First Nation. Their dresses were designed by Autumn Jules – and the circle goes around. The Stephen-Bailey graduates’ grandma, Doris John, did the beading. I loved seeing how Doris John took contemporary high-heeled shoes and added beaded elements and fur trim to them. Many different approaches to moccasins and footwear add another delightful dimension to this show.

Jackie Olson of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation has exhibited many of her abstract paintings in Whitehorse over the years. Her words on the information cards nearby speak of her pride in making two of these outfits, for Destiny Taylor and Kalilah Olson. “All dresses are designed with the graduates’ vision of how they want their dress to be,” Olson writes. I feel that this show inhabits a different relationship for artworks and artists than many others I have seen. The garments are identified by their graduates, first and foremost. The makers are listed, but not as the main focus. While some garments are made by one person, often they are the work of several artists. This is an exhibit about relationships, about gifts and hope and encouragement, about working together, rather than about solitary genius, or personal expression.

This exhibit, and the years of First Nations Graduation ceremonies it springs from, arise from the same spirit that exhorts us all to stand “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow.” Native Grad started just two years after Elijah Smith and his allies brought this document to Ottawa to start our contemporary land claims process. This exhibit celebrates a beautiful part of how First Nations cultures in the Yukon have been building themselves, reclaiming education for Indigenous purposes.

Honouring Our Future was curated by Lisa Dewhurst, in a partnership between the Teslin Tlingit Council, the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, and the Yukon Arts Centre. Over the next two-and-a-half years it will travel to five other cultural centres around the Yukon.

You can see it in Whitehorse at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre, Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wear your mask.

Culture meets couture