North

Yukoner digs into history and function of First Nation octopus bags

A First Nation item that combines aesthetic and function may have been created in Eastern Canada, but got its unusual name in the Yukon.

Curtis Collins says bags are proof of an exchange of ideas and materials between many regions

This octopus bag was made by Yukoner Lena White. She says it took her three months of daily beading and research to complete. She used her collection of First Nation artwork books for reference. (Submitted by Lena White)

A First Nation item that combines aesthetic and function was created in Eastern Canada, but got its unusual name in the Yukon.

Such is a finding of Curtis Collins of the Yukon School of Visual Arts about octopus bags, which fascinated him because of their pan-North American history. 

"Their name comes quite a distance from their origin and probably a century after they were being made in various places in North America," he says.

Collins, who has a grant from Yukon College to research the eight-fingered bags, says they were created by the Algonquins in the late 1700s. Octopus bags were eventually traded into the hands of inland and coastal Tlingit, who named the bag for its resemblance to a devil fish or octopus.

Collins says by the time octopus bags reached the Yukon, they were no longer used as a bag but as a dance apron for ceremonials purposes.

He says the bags are excellent proof that 18th and 19th-century indigenous artists were part of "global efforts." Collins says although the designs were particular to the region, the materials were not. In some cases, beads for the bags came from Italy or Poland and the cloth came from the United Kingdom. 

"It really combats a really narrow view of trying to assign ideas of authenticity," Collins says. "It shows that there was a flow of ideas, an exchange of ideas, an exchange of materials."

Collins recently visited the McCord Museum in Montreal to see its collection of bags, and plans to visit other museums in Canada and eventually the United States and Europe. He hopes his research will culminate in an international exhibition and a publication on octopus bags.

The MacBride Museum in Whitehorse has examples of local octopus bags in its collection.   

Octopus bags still being made

Yukoner Lena White made an octopus bag in 2013, using First Nation beadwork books as a reference.

She says it took her three months of daily beading and research to complete.

White was introduced to First Nation beadwork by her Kwanlin Dun First Nation mother-in-law and says the bags were used by medicine men and women, with each finger holding a different medicine. 

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