In the days before ski-doos and cars

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Moose-hide boots, caribou stew and frozen eyelashes - they're all part of the job for National Museums of Scotland curator Chantal Knowles
Moose-hide boots, caribou stew and frozen eyelashes - they're all part of the job for National Museums of Scotland curator Chantal Knowles.

Chantal admits, however, that the six-year long project which involved four trips to Subarctic Canada and ended with an exhibition in Edinburgh (Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada, TESS May 30), has been the most unusual of her career to date.

Focused on the NMS's rare collection of 19th-century aboriginal artefacts from the Northwest Territories of Canada, it saw Chantal flying off in March last year for her fourth and final trip - this time to undertake outreach sessions with school pupils in Tlicho communities.

The present-day Tlicho, who number around 3,500 and live in four remote settlements, are descendants of the 19th-century Tlicho whose handmade goods (clothing, utensils and hunting gear) were bought by employees of the Hudson Bay Company on the instruction of the first director of the NMS.

During the course of the recent six-year project, the Tlicho achieved self-governing status and their involvement - aimed at sharing and enriching the collection - took on even more significance.

"During my previous trips to Canada, I spoke with Tlicho elders about the outreach programme and, along with Wendy Stephenson from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, we decided on a Winter Travel theme," says Chantal.

Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories, and a smaller version of the show currently running in Edinburgh was mounted there last year. But the least remote Tlicho community is still more than two hours away from Yellowknife by car, so the outreach programme gave everyone access to the collection.

"The outreach trip took place at the coldest time of the year," continues Chantal. "I brought ski wear, but it wasn't substantial enough to protect me from the - 50 degree centigrade temperatures and I had to borrow clothes, including moose-hide boots to prevent frostbite. It was so cold at one point that my eyelashes froze."

The extreme weather meant that Chantal, accompanied by Wendy, could only visit three of the four communities, travelling to two of them by a plane fitted with skis which landed on frozen lakes.

The outreach team stayed in community guest houses where meals included traditional caribou stew. Museum conservation regulations meant Chantal was only able to bring three of the less fragile items from the Tlicho collection - a dog harness, sled lines and moccasins - contained in a special metal case that she had to keep with her at all times, for security reasons.

"Each of the four communities has a primary school and there is one high school. We held sessions in three primary schools and the high school, seeing a total of 300 pupils," says Chantal.

"Although English is the language at school, the Tlicho language is also on the curriculum, as is the tradition of learning from elders. Two elders and a translator were involved in each session, and as the pupils handled the museum artefacts - wearing special gloves - the elders joined in with stories about winter travel in the days before ski-doos, cars and airplanes. They also showed the children how to braid mitten strings and use the reproduction snowshoes that had been made for the sessions."

The pupils were proud to learn that traditional Tlicho craftwork had been preserved in a Scottish museum and was being appreciated by people from all over the world.

"Winter Travel Edukits" were produced in Yellowknife afterwards and have been presented to all the schools.

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