Keeping the Warmth of Tradition Alive: Nancy Bonnetrouge Weaves Textiles and Traditions
“In the olden days, our people used to wear only traditional clothing and the one that was most worn was rabbit, in a hand-woven, traditional way that they would make into parkas, jackets and liners for mukluks and mittens. Stuff that was worn in those days were so warm that when it was cold outside the kids used to be okay outside with just their traditional clothing,” Nancy Bonnetrouge recounts. Later, a modern knitting technique using machines would be used to weave warm clothing people would travel from afar to purchase, with the modernization allowing for expanded production.
Bonnetrouge grew up in Fort Providence, a member of Deh Gah Gotie First Nation and now she works at Dene Fur Clouds. The business started small and grew from there, showcasing the local cultural traditions while employing local people. When she first started working there in the mid nineties, the business struggled and they would take breaks in operation.
By 2000, she was working full-time as the production manager, doing all the cutting, knitting, finishing, spinning and blocking. She went on to become the supervisor, guiding the other staff, filling orders and acting as a manager. Their little shop is now online and people can purchase cozy coats and more from Dene Fur Clouds all from the comfort of their own homes.
While production has been modernized, there are still very manual aspects to the creation of these legendary products. “It's kind of simple, but then the work is also very tedious. There's a lot of hand sewing involved, if you're going to start a product you have to hand sew the fur together and then you have to learn to read a pattern,” she relays. Mittens, hats, scarves, and head warmers are made with patterns on handheld knitting machines which are getting harder and harder to find.
Because parts are scarce and manufacturers aren’t making the machines anymore, they have to be very careful about who is allowed to use them and only people who are very serious about wanting to learn are taught and trusted with the machinery. Bonnetrouge taught herself to sew at the age of eleven by looking at other people’s work. She always wanted to do her best and for people who received things she made to have the best, so she joined a cultural institute to learn from elders with expertise creating high quality traditional items.
She wants to encourage youth who have to leave their home communities for education. “That's the sacrifice the student has to make, if they want quality in their life down the road. Education is so important. I ingrained that in my own children. I tried never to let them miss school and when they went away from me to pursue their education, it was hard but it made me proud of my children pursuing their own goals. I don't have to worry about them down the road. They can take care of themselves,” she reflects.
Bonnetrouge has personal reasons to encourage youth to pursue their dreams wherever that might take them. “I never had that opportunity to finish my education. I only went to grade nine,” she explains, remembering how she had to start working at a young age to feed her siblings and take on a parental role as a young teenager. She worked to make sure they didn’t go to school hungry and she wanted something different for her own children.
“When I had my own family, I made sure education was a priority and there was always going to be food on the table. I made a lot of money sewing, so I never had to worry about food or anything the kids needed. Parents, if you are watching this, really encourage your children to be who they are and try to keep their traditions and cultures alive, but still pursue further education in post secondary,” she says.
To balance her mental health and well-being, she trusts in her higher power and tries to stay positive. She’s inspired by her Dene identity and she’s proud to do her traditional crafts, knowing that their traditional clothing is slowly disappearing. “That's all I want in life is for stuff not to die and to be carried on in this modern world,” she muses.
In the olden days, her people used to wear only traditional clothing and now Nancy Bonnetrouge is helping keep the warmth of tradition alive. Keeping her community clothed with their customs, she’s weaving the wisdom of the past with more modern machinery, spreading traditional teachings through textiles. Wrapping customers in the beauty of her culture, she takes pride in knowing their ways will not be forgotten.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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