There’s a furry addition to Team Yukon’s uniforms as they march into the opening ceremony of the Arctic Winter Games in the Northwest Territories on March 18. Athletes will sport fur pom-poms made from wolf pelts harvested in the Haines Junction area and sewn onto their hats by members of the community.

The pom-poms are part of the unFURled project, which aims to grow the Yukon’s trapping industry.

“This idea came from a focus group we held over a year ago, where one of the participants talked about how in the past, fur was used by athletes to stay warm in cold climates,” said unFURled Project Coordinator Kelly Milner.

“We started talking about the Arctic Winter Games and whether or not we could get fur incorporated into a team uniform. We knew that the Haines Junction community was looking for a community fur sewing project, and we thought this could be a way of bringing these two ideas together.”

Milner said that having local fur as part of Team Yukon’s uniforms is a way of recognizing fur’s cultural importance in the North and, of course, for keeping warm.

The idea of showcasing local culture at the Winter Games isn’t exclusive to the Yukon.

“Over the past few years we’ve noticed how other Arctic Winter Games teams have been incorporating fur into their uniforms; Greenland has seal skin and Nunavik and the Northwest Territories have fur ruffs on their parkas,” Milner said. “We approached Team Yukon this year to see if we could do something similar with our team… Our hope is we can work with Team Yukon to integrate more Yukon fur into future uniforms as a way of representing our fur heritage while also supporting a local industry.”

She’s even overheard a few athletes talking about their uniforms and everyone seems very excited. “Fur pom-poms are very fashionable these days and the ones Team Yukon will be sporting have a very special story behind them that is rooted in our territory.”

It’s also about revitalizing a lost tradition. “When I was a kid, Team Yukon jackets came with fur pom-poms and ruffs on them. They were made by the Yukon Parka Factory back then.”

Sewers in Haines Junction were enthusiastic about the project.

“The response from the Haines Junction community has been overwhelming,” said Milner. “So many people were part of it, from elders to youth and everyone in between.”

A $200 honorarium was offered to non-profit groups that wanted to sew 50 pom-poms. “Sometimes we need a reason and a deadline to leave our house on a cold winter night,” said Haines Junction trapper and local fur enthusiast Lisa Preto.

This project brought a lot of people together.

“Sewing for fundraising was fun and social, and the Arctic Winter Games is a valuable experience for so many Yukon youth- it was a win-win-win project,” said Preto. “It’s heartwarming that people were coming together to sew fur. It’s one of the oldest reasons in history to get together.”

Preto was especially impressed by members at the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Youth Centre.

“They jumped into action as soon as I asked if they would like to be involved.”

The students at the Youth Centre who are participating in the games were interested in the project, too.

“I think when they see all the hats at the opening ceremonies, they will be really proud that this project was from their community,” Preto said.

She loves the spirit of comradery between northerners at the Winter Games.

“We understand the context of each other – all being somewhat isolated with long winters and small communities. It’s exciting to learn about and visit other northern regions and meet other northern people.”

Preto sees the Arctic Winter Games as a “unique opportunity for northerners, hosted by northerners.” This makes it an especially relevant venue to display Yukon culture. “There is a lot of pride at the Games in representing the wilderness, wildness and connection to the land, along with the uniqueness of the area.

“I believe that wearing wild local fur represents and showcases all of those things… The Arctic Winter Games are an opportunity for youth to define their identities, both as athletes and Yukoners, and I hope that this contribution of fur adds to that Yukon identity.”

Preto said that Yukoners can support the local industry by noticing when people around them are wearing fur and engaging with them and asking questions.

“If you see something you like or find interesting, say something! The stories of how things are made, or how people acquired them are unique. This is the best part of a handmade industry.”

Those who would like to be more involved in sewing fur can tap into opportunities in Whitehorse and the communities to learn or join a sewing circle.

“…Take a class or workshop or just jump in. Make traditional items like slippers and mitts, or new items like scarves or earrings, or a combination of the two.

“If you’re not into sewing or creating, buy from the masters and innovators who love working with fur.”

John Trotter, Yukon Government appointed co-chair at Alsek Renewable Resources Council, said that the pom-pom project fulfills the mandates of moose population recovery by trapping wolves, as well as the revitalization and promotion of ethical trapping in the region. “There’s a long history of trapping in the Yukon. It’s important that we support the community and get more people out in the bush,” said Trotter.

Trappers received on-the-ground training in current, humane animal harvesting techniques. Trotter made it clear that the wolves were ethically harvested in accordance with the Government of Yukon’s wildlife management goals.

“The project is following very stringent guidelines under the Wolf Conservation Management Plan.” Pelts were then tanned and treated through the Yukon Trappers Association.

The Yukon Government’s trapping guidelines are available online for anyone interested, as are further details on the wildlife management initiative and science behind the project.

Non-profit groups involved in sewing the pom-poms included the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Youth Centre in Haines Junction, the Dakwakada Dancers, the Champagne Community Club, Romp ’n Run (preschool program), the Treble Makers Fiddle Club, the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Society and the Augusto! Children’s Festival.

The 2018 South Slave Arctic Winter Games take place March 18 to 24 in Fort Smith and Hay River, Northwest Territories.