Likely the smallest store in the Yukon has a message that transcends its size.
Artist Vanessa Ægirsdóttir makes and sells fur jewellery and textiles at her six-square-metre store in Horwoods Mall, which opened in October. Her partner, George Bahm, a First Nations trapper, is the primary supplier of marten, fox, wolf and lynx, which are then transformed into tasteful earrings, necklaces and the like.
But speaking with the pair on Jan. 16 it became apparent the shop is trying to go much further, becoming somewhat of an education beacon for Indigenous culture and worldviews.
“Part of the shop, part of our work, part of the trap line is to educate people on Yukon First Nations and their ways of knowing and doing,” said Bahm, who’s Tlingit.
Ægirsdóttir says that her enterprise acts as a platform to raise awareness about the value of the furs, having nothing to do with money.
“For me, this is an act of reconciliation that I can do,” she said. “It’s really within my grasp. It allows me to open dialogue and give people a chance to ask questions.
“I tell people that when they’re wearing fur we ask them to be mindful of the fact that an animal has given its life so we can adorn ourselves with its feathers, with its fur and by wearing those items they’re forever in a relationship with an animal. It’s more than just a pair of earrings.”
Asked how Ægirsdóttir balances running a business as a non-Indigenous person that may have certain Indigenous influences, she said that she’s put in a lot of effort to ensure nothing is ripped off that’s “inherently First Nations.”
“I realize there’s a very fine line between appreciation and appropriation and it comes down to intention,” she said. “I don’t do anything that could be misinterpreted or misconstrued as being a copycat.”
Ægirsdóttir emphasized that she cannot do her work without Indigenous people and the communities from which they hail.
She has first-hand experience with trapping, Ægirsdóttir noted, thanks to Bahm, who, she said, is a mainstay of the business.
Bahm runs a trap line in the South Canol area, frequently inviting visitors and residents to tag along. Most, he said, are non-Indigenous people eager to learn about the activity and its cultural underpinnings.
“What we wanted is a deep connection, but clearly for people to understand what they’re purchasing and make sure it’s being treated with respect,” he said.
Bahm, who dons a parka complete with a wolf ruff that he trapped, feels he’s being adequately compensated for his labour at long last, he said.
What he makes now is a far cry from what he pocketed at auction houses in the east, he said. The prices there were very low, he added — $75 for a lynx pelt, for instance, at one point – which wasn’t sustainable.
“That’s a half or a third of what we should be getting,” he said, noting the labourious process of trapping.
It made sense to transition to supplying the boutique, Bahm said.
“Now my furs are being used at a profitable margin that I feel is a more respectful use of the fur,” he said, noting that his harvest is humane in that he uses quick-kill traps.
“I believe that suffering goes into the fur,” he said. “I want people to feel that this has been done as ethically and humanely as possible, because it’s a gift to wear any fur, or take anything from the land for that matter.”
Most of his furs stay in the Yukon where they’re sold. To the people who buy them, Bahm said they’re deepening their connection to the Yukon and the people who’ve trapped for generations.
“I feel that this is cutting-edge. I’m an Indigenous person. I’m involved in something that represents who I am and represents something that’s from here,” he said, adding that Indigenous people must start leading more enterprises.
Both Ægirsdóttir and Bahm made a point to acknowledge the traditional territories of Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Ta’an Kwäch’än Council that encompass the Whitehorse area.
Eventually, they want to hang a land acknowledgement in the boutique.
Product descriptions have so far been translated into Tlingit. Southern Tutchone is next.
“We want to have an acknowledgement here of traditional territory,” Bahm said. “Yes, we’re on those traditional territories. Yes, we’re selling fur. We’re beginning to work with elders and the local First Nations.”
Prices for jewelry are between $60 and $200. There is a selection of tapestries for sale, too, that go for $400.
Contact Julien Gignac at firstname.lastname@example.org