Athapaskan Women's Costumes and Ornaments

CMC S89-1747; PCD 94-685-014

(a-e) Tahltan Athapaskan women's ornaments, pre-1915; collected by J.A. Teit, 1912-1915, at Cassiar and Bear Lake, British Columbia
a Hair ornament worn by women between puberty and marriage; tanned caribou skin, glass beads, lucky-charm stone weights; 49 cm. long (including pendants) CMC VI-O-59
b Widow's necklace with stone pendant and bone head-scratcher; tanned caribou skin, unworked slate, caribou bone, cotton thread; necklace 37 cm. long, pendant 11 cm. wide, scratcher 9.5 cm. long CMC VI-O-85 a,b
c Necklace worn after puberty seclusion; tanned moose calfskin, dentalia, glass beads, lucky-charm stone, cotton thread; necklace 44 cm. long, pendant 9.5 cm. long CMC VI-O-62
d Collar worn between puberty and marriage; tanned caribou skin, glass and seed beads, sinew, cotton thread; 42 cm. long CMC VI-O-56
e Drinking tube, carrying case and grease bag; swan's leg-bone, tanned caribou skin, glass beads, beaver claws, red ochre, swansdown; tube 24.3 cm. long, case 21.2 x 11.4 cm., bag 4 x 3 cm. CMC VI-O-57 a,b
f Puberty hood, late 1940s (a model representative of a type used in the early 1900s); Southern Tutchone Athapaskan, Carcross, Yukon Territory; made by Mrs. Patsy Henderson; tanned caribou skin, glass beads, red ochre pigment, sinew, cotton thread; 71 x 59.5 cm. CMC VI-Q-172

In ancient times the Athapaskans (Dene), who lived in northwestern Canada and Alaska, observed strict rituals and taboos to ensure their safety and well-being. Some of those affecting women are illustrated here.

The Athapaskans believed that menstrual blood offended animal spirits and that contamination would adversely affect hunting success. At the onset of menses, girls were secluded in huts for long periods, during which they wore fringed hoods like the one here. The hood was to prevent them looking on the faces of hunters; it was believed that, if they were to do so, the hunt would be unsuccessful and members of their lineage might become ill or be killed by vengeful spirits. They drank only from drinking tubes, which might have a grease bag attached; smearing grease on the mouth was intended to reduce the need for food. A necklace like the one at lower left and the collar to its right indicated that a girl was ready for marriage. The weighted ornament at upper left was attached at the back of the head to stimulate hair growth.

Widowhood also had its taboos. During the bereavement period, the widow wore a necklace like the one at centre top. A head scratcher was necessary because she did not comb her hair during all that time.

CMC PCD 94-685-013

Woman's summer costume, ca. 1880; Koyukon Athapaskan, Yukon River region, Alaska/Yukon Territory; tanned caribou skin, dyed porcupine quills, seed and wooden beads, sinew; 104.5 cm. long CMC VI-I-80a-c

Child's summer costume, ca. 1870; Koyukon Athapaskan, Tanana/Yukon River region, Alaska; tanned caribou skin, woollen cloth, cotton thread, sinew, red ochre pigment, glass and metal beads; 87.7 cm. long

For ceremonies or on trading trips, women and children wore beautifully decorated garments like in this photograph. Red paint applied along the seams was believed to protect the wearer.

Similar garments of both types were worn by adults and children of both sexes on special occasions during the summer. The costumes included trouser-moccasins, hoods and mittens.