Sewing Our Traditions: Dolls of Canada’s North will be on display at Dawson’s Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre until September 21, held over from the centre’s regular summer season so that it can be part of a school-related program.

Students at the Robert Service School (RSS) have already had one shot at doll making and the efforts of the Grade 4 class are part of the display that the centre has been running all summer, along with some local dolls from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in collection.

The travelling collection, containing dolls from the three northern territories, was assembled as part of the cultural display at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

The work of 29 doll makers is featured, including Dawson’s own Dolores Anderson, and Yukon elders Pearl Keenan, Rachel Thompson and Annie Smith.

Dänojà Zho Manager Glenda Bolt notes that the territories have very similar themes even if the materials used to make the dolls are different.

There is a clear emphasis on winter clothing in the collection, and the detail work that went into the boots on all the dolls is a clear indication of how important good footwear is seen all across the North.

“The dolls really show how the cultures valued using everything they had—every scrap of bone, leather or fur,” she says.

“Look at that doll clothed in fish skin. Now that is using everything.

“It’s been charming quite a few of the kids. They just think it’s so funny that there are fish made out of fish skin.”

Dolores Anderson has been making dolls and other traditional crafts since she was a child. Photo by Dan Davidson

The doll in question is by a younger artist, Sarah Uppik, from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. She often creates dolls that depict hunting.

As the useful 60-page booklet that goes with the exhibit indicates, the origins of this handmade doll tradition has “a more serious adult purpose; teaching the children the skills that will be required when they grow up.”

In the past, when most things were hand made, children began to work alongside their parents and elders at a very early age, learning “how to scrape and tan hides, spin thread and weave it in to cloth, or sew boots with animal sinew… Making doll clothes was a way to learn these essential skills.”

While the dolls originally had a practical purpose, today they are more often created as works of art that reflect Northern history, cultures and customs.

Lizzie Angootealuk, whose dolls are usually posed doing some traditional activity, is very specific about this in her comments.

“I try to capture my culture with my dolls.”

Yukon dolls tend to be made from moose and caribou along with a verity of furs from small animals. Many have a belt with the word “Yukon” spelled out across the waist.

Dolls from the Northwest Territories share the same basic materials, but also make the “Mother Hubbard” style of cloth clothing and use a lot of floral beadwork.

In Nunavut there are some of the same materials, but a lot more sealskin, fox and rabbit. The art had nearly died out there for a while, but was revived by a series of workshops in the first decade of this century.

Bolt says that the season-end visitors to the centre, which always include a heavier proportion of European travellers, are absolutely fascinated by the collection, and there have been some squeals of delight from women who collect dolls themselves.