Traditional Techniques Tweaked to Galvanize Indigenous Northern Artisans

traditional belts

Beyond the rugged landscape and long winters cloaked in darkness, Canada’s North offers inspiration from breathtaking northern lights, a summer sun that doesn’t set, and untamed, wild beauty. From these elements, a rich kaleidoscope of talented Indigenous artisans are born.

Unfortunately, many of these artisans often sell their work through an underground economy. This undermines the perceived quality of some of the work. It also contributes to poor relationships with money and impedes their ability to be successful and profitable.

Sue McNeil saw the challenges these artisans faced in the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in Settlement Areas and was compelled to do something. For Sue, it was about empowering the artists to be more successful by providing opportunities to be more comfortable promoting their business. It was also about finding ways for them to support each other. Her solution: create an association of northern Indigenous artists and crafters with self-determined quality, products, prices, and markets that would support sustainable and culturally valuable lifestyles.

Sue convened an Artists Committee to build out the framework for an Artists Association. The goals of the Artists Association: manage the business of selling the artwork through sustainable business ventures, build capacity and self-determination for artists in the region, improve local artisans’ skills, ensuring authentic, high-quality products, and build confidence in the members as sustainable business owners.

In an effort to break down barriers and build trust, the Artists Committee gathered input from artists to better understand what they wanted. They found there was a desire to focus not just on traditional art but also on generating art in non-traditional ways.

The next task the Artists Association took on was finding a space where artisans could work together. In 10 short weeks, the team learned how to create and procure space that could accommodate up to 30 traditional artists for workshops and training. The Makerspace, a key partner, provided a place where artists could come together and collaborate while sharing tools, resources and knowledge.

One of the keys to success for this project was how the Artists Committee listened to what the artisans said and worked collaboratively to implement their vision. They created an Artists Association that now supports sustainable business ventures, is improving local artisans’ skills, ensuring authentic, high-quality products, and building confidence in the members as sustainable business owners.