Beaver Hats to Hockey Pads: A Social History of Felt in Canada (redux)

6. First Nations

A museum artifact tells a story of survival…

While not as common as melton, stroud or duffel, felt was a wool trade cloth still used by indigenous peoples of North America as it makes a great support for beadwork. An historical example of such felt is found on a breechcloth from the Royal Ontario Museum collection known to have been worn by Bearskin, Chief of the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan in the 1930s. The beadwork shows Plains geometric patterns and Woodlands style of floral work along with influence from European decorative designs, reflecting the migration and adaptation of many Cree from Woodlands roots to Prairie settlement.

Bearskin.Breechcloth.head.photo

LEFT: Chief Bearskin’s head dress, brimless felt hat beneath bound eagle feathers, 1930s, Collection of Royal Ontario Museum; CENTRE: Breechcloth worn by Chief Bearskin, 1930s, beadwork on felt, exhibition loan to Textile Museum of Canada, Collection of Royal Ontario Museum; RIGHT: Cree from Nekaneet in the Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan, 1930s with Bearskin (left), Crooked Leg (middle) and Peeper (right) (photo: Glenbow Archives)

The Cree Nekaneet Reserve is centrally positioned in the true high plains region of Saskatchewan. Through the 1800s, the Federal Government tried to keep the First Nations from gathering in these desirable Cypress Hills, and by 1882 most Cree and Assiniboin were pushed to reserves in other parts of the province. But the Nekaneet band refused to leave even as they were destitute. In 1913 the government gave them a reserve, but not until 1975 were they provided with the Treaty benefits they’d been denied for almost a hundred years. According to curator Arni Brownstone, in 1930 the ROM paid $50.00 for the above-pictured garments to a rancher who had traded them with Bearskin for food.

The Nekaneet First Nation is now a member of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, committed to protecting Inherent and Treaty rights since 1946. KW

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