Researcher aims to reclaim the lost tradition of Caribou Coats – MacEwan University
Edmonton – Dr. Carole Charette says she was blown away the first time she saw the hand-painted, intricate designs on a 18th-century caribou skin coat.
“The beauty of the composition, the complexity of the patterns, the structure of the design and the use of colour took my breath away says Charette.” The experience was so impactful that Charette decided to use them as the basis for a research project that led her to photograph and document more than 70 coats over the past five years.
She says the coats were made by Naskapi, Innu and Cree women. “Everything about these coats is so defined, so carefully thought out, so beautiful and so powerful.”
But as with all good design—regardless of the century it was created in—Charette says the significance of these coats extends far beyond aesthetics. “Design isn’t just about beauty, it’s about combining elements in a powerful way that creates an emotional connection to a piece. These coats have a function—each tells a unique story—and you immediately get that when you see them.”
Charette, an assistant professor in the Design Studies program at MacEwan University says that while the earliest coats were painted using natural pigments to create the intricate shapes over time artists moved away from hand painting to embroidery and beading. But locating the artifacts has been a challenge. Of the 175 coats that Carole estimates are in collections around the world, only 25 are in North America. She has photographed and documented coats in collections at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Smithsonian Institute, and at museums in Scotland, England, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France.
Charette is partnering with Jimmy Sandy Memorial School, from the Naskapi First Nations in Quebec to develop a series of workshops around Indigenous iconography. “There are many things the design elements in these coats, and the partnership that comes from studying them, can teach us. I hope this work illustrates how we can reinvent and reimagine using very basic elements—dots, circles, squares and lines. How these things can come together in completely different and powerful ways.”
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