Students adorn traditional regalia during their grad ceremony on May 25, 2018. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Yukon First Nations’ graduation regalia sought for upcoming exhibit

Curator Lisa Dewhurst is hoping to get at least two pieces from each Yukon First Nation

An upcoming travelling exhibit is hoping to showcase the diversity and beauty of Yukon First Nations’ graduation regalia — but it needs your help.

Curator Lisa Dewhurst said in an interview Feb. 20 that she’s still looking for people willing to loan their regalia to be part of the show, which will premiere in Teslin June 1 before travelling to other communities in the Yukon.

The initiative is a collaborative effort between the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre, Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre and the Yukon Arts Centre, but the idea came out of Dewhurst’s years of working in Indigenous-focused tourism.

Dewhurst said the first sparks started while she was working at the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre and was trying to convince a friend of hers, whom she described as a “really good beader,” to become a cultural demonstrator at the centre.

“And as I was talking I was like, ‘Yeah, and then we can start displaying some of your sewing around you and your beading…’ She never ended up coming to work for us but when she left, I just started thinking more on a larger scale and thinking about absolutely all of our great beaders in the Yukon,” Dewhurst recalled.

Dewhurst said her children were also getting ready to graduate around the same time.

“I really just started to think, ‘Well, jeez, wouldn’t it just be great to have an exhibit on this First Nation regalia?’ It’s such a good representation of all the sewing styles throughout our territory,” she said.

The meaning and significance of graduation regalia, Dewhurst explained, also goes far beyond the physical pieces themselves; they also represent a coming together of families and communities, a unity so deep and intense that it’s only possibly rivaled by the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The sewing of the pieces begins months before the actual graduation ceremony, and there’s the purchasing of beads, sharing of patterns and the formation of sewing circles.

“It’s just a really neat little unity that happens and everybody’s connected through excitement and the pressure of getting this huge job done… I kind of wanted to tell that part of the story too,” Dewhurst said.

Besides showcasing the different styles of sewing and beading between nations, graduation regalia can also be a window into the evolution of design. Dewhurst said she’s hoping to include “some really old pieces” that show off “really, really traditional” design next to contemporary regalia, which still uses traditional materials and patterns but in new ways.

“A good example would be the shape and the cut of the dresses,” she said.

“I have seen, traditionally maybe a skin dress would be kind of down below the knees, sometimes form-fitting, sometimes not, often with a belt, lots of fringe. And then we just recently had a submission of a dress that was just kind of a poofy ballerina dress or skirt and it looked like it had crinoline underneath and it was made out of hide … The top had a lot of beadwork, it was a tight-fitted bodice up top with beadwork, so that was really contemporary, I thought.”

Dewhurst said she’s hoping to have at least two pieces from each Yukon First Nation in the exhibit, with one male and one female outfit (“If the whole ensemble includes a headpiece, a hat, some jewelry, a stole, cuffs, things like that, most definitely we’d like to see the full-on outfits”). She’s also planning on arranging the exhibit so that the regalia is displayed relative to Yukon First Nations’ geographic proximities to each other, beginning with Kaska pieces and moving north from there.

As for the location of the exhibit itself, after opening in Teslin, it’ll make its way to the respective First Nations cultural centres in Old Crow and Whitehorse, then Dawson City and Carcross in 2021 and finally, in the spring of 2022, Haines Junction.

“I just thought this would be a great way to connect our cultural centres … (The exhibit) should travel to all of our cultural centres and, you know, it’s an exhibit by us, for us and it’s in our centres,” Dewhurst said.

She acknowledged that two-and-a-half years was a long time for people to part with their regalia, but promised that it would be well taken care of and returned at the end of the exhibit. The owners of regalia that make it into the exhibit will also receive some financial compensation.

“It’s going to be a really special exhibit,” Dewhurst said. “It’s just really great that, you know, Indigenous people are creating it and it’s going to be in our cultural centres … It just includes all of us.”

People interested in contributing their regalia to the exhibit can contact Dewhurst at 867-333-6396, 867-390-2246, or lisa.dewhurst@yac.ca. The deadline for submissions is March 2.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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Students adorn traditional regalia during their grad ceremony on May 25, 2018. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

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