What happens when you put a Greek Master Furrier in a room full of Northern Indigenous Women? There’s going to be learning, laughter, a little bit of teasing and an even deeper appreciation for fur.
In February 2022, NWT Arts sponsored a 6-day intensive fur seminar in Inuvik, Northwest Territories for Indigenous Artists, Designers and Seamstresses who work primarily with fur, via Industry Tourism and Investment, a department of the Government of the Northwest Territories. I was fortunate to get a spot in this course which was right in line with my work as a modern Inuvialuk Artist and Fashion Designer. Many of us were from outlying communities who travelled to Inuvik to attend the program, and others had to take time from work and family to attend, such is our dedication to excellence, willingness to learn from a master furrier and improve our traditional and contemporary fur skills.
The master furrier I speak about is none other than Pangiotis Pangiotidis. He is a Greek who spent his life since a young age working in the European fur business, learning from master furriers and becoming a master at his craft. He told us that Canada has never produced a female furrier, nor do we have any professional full time furrier training programs, which is surprising considering that modern day Canada as many know it was built on the fur trade and our furs are the best quality in the world. Panos had his own successful fur business in Greece but decided to move to Canada to pursue teaching opportunities with Fur Canada based in Nanaimo, BC. Here he teaches intensive seminars in fur construction.
Among the attendees, there were Inuvialuit (Inuit), Gwich’in (Dene) and Metis, all Indigenous to the Northwest Territories, Canada’s Western Arctic. For those of us fortunate to attend, many have day jobs and create traditional clothing, garments and fur accessories in their spare time, selling within our communities and online. Some of us own our own Art & Design businesses. We all appreciate the value of fur, hides, pelts, leather and how important and necessary it is in a cultural context to create and do what we do. Some of us are re-learning what our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew having been taught by their mothers and grandmothers until the Canadian Government’s Residential School system imposed by Catholic and Anglican Missionaries disrupted our way of life causing irreversible damage to our people, culture, knowledge transfer systems, community and family structures. All of which we are still working to heal to this day. Part of that healing is reclaiming our traditional sewing skills, arts and crafts, using what we retained of our traditional knowledge and incorporating contemporary practices and techniques.
The value of fur and its practical uses are so very important for many reasons. The main one being for survival in harsh Arctic conditions – which Indigenous People knew that in order to survive it was absolutely necessary to use what was available in our natural environment to create functional, warm, sustainable, biodegradable clothing. Fashion was never the priority; however, looking back on some of the first photos of Inuvialuit and Gwich’in, I see the skill and pride in their work, creating functional garments that were also incredibly beautiful, told a story of belonging, showed the skill and love of the seamstress, ability and wealth of the hunter to provide beautiful furs. Our dramatic amaruq sunburst fur ruffs made of Arctic wolf and wolverine have been scientifically proven to be the best design to divert cold arctic air and keep your face warm in extreme cold conditions, far superior to any man-made faux furs. Wolverine is valued for its characteristic fur trait in that condensed ice buildup from your breath can simply be brushed off without compromising the fur’s ability to insulate. And far from the mislabelled ‘clubbing cute baby seals’ identity promoted by animal rights activists, we do not actually club baby seals to death. While there is no way around killing an animal, a good hunter ensures it’s done efficiently and quickly so the animal will not suffer unnecessarily. We understand, appreciate and humbly respect that an animal gives it life so we may live. We use most if not all parts of the animal, and anything not used is put back into the land and water to decompose putting nutrients back into the nature. We do not to take more than we need, only what’s necessary for survival and subsistence hunting, thus creating a sustainable cycle, not an exploitative, finite one.
My great naanak Taalrumiq (English name Mary Gruben) was one of the first Inuvialuit to marry a European Fur Trader, a Swiss-German Hudson’s Bay employee named John Gruben. She and the Inuvialuit Arnait (Women) of her generation went from creating full fur and skin garments in the traditional ways of our ancestors using caribou sinew and bone needles to adapting to using materials available with the advance of the fur trade like cotton, polyester and wool fabrics, nylon thread and metal needles. They incorporated techniques and more modest styles introduced by the nuns, thus creating a new tradition – long, flowy, demure calico print & duffle garments with fur trim and embroidered melton wool mukluks as opposed to the traditional shorter length, fitted and shapely atigi parkas, knee & thigh high fur mukluks with seal or walrus soles of times past. My Jijuu (Gwich’in grandmother) was also known for her intricate beadwork and sewing skills. Many of the traditional and contemporary clothing styles, materials and values are intertwined in both cultures as we were neighbors, friends, enemies and family.
Here I am a few generations later, with the same traditional knowledge, skills and talent in my blood memory inherited from my long, matrilineal line of Inuit Women, my Gwich’in grandmother and her bloodline. These ancient skills and natural talent combined with my contemporary studies and training in hairstyling, fashion, fine art and education allow me to create luxury, Inuvialuit couture garments, accessories, adornment, artwork and cultural education under my own fashion label and business Taalrumiq. Taalrumiq is my traditional Inuvialuit name, named after my great-Naanak in the customary Inuvialuit way by local elders in my community when I was a baby. It took me my whole life to accept, reclaim and love my Inuvialuit name. The Canadian Government dehumanized us, taking away our Inuit names replacing them with letters and numbers on leather discs worn around our necks like dog tags, in addition to being assigned random English names and birthdates. My Mother was ‘W.3-1241.’ W for the Western arctic, area 3 and the 1241st Inuvialuk to be registered. Despite this, many Inuvialuit have both English and traditional names, and though our traditional names may not be on ‘official’ government documents and identification, they are still valid and true names that carry meaning, acknowledge our ancestral lineage and strengthen our Indigenous identity. This part of our history is important to remember, not only for us but for all Canadians. This is part of why my label is called Taalrumiq. We also believe that you take on personality traits and characteristics of your atiq (namesake) and having touched and seen some of my atiq’s traditional skin and fur sewing and preferences for bright, bold accent colours, I believe this is true!
When we work with fur, the scent, feel, process and completed products are a sense of nostalgia, pride, satisfaction and love. Nostalgia as many of us have memories sitting and sewing with our mothers, grandmothers, elders and women in our community. Pride and satisfaction in a beautiful product made by our own hands, complete with nicks from the needle and marks from pleating the fur and hide and pulling the thread taut. Love because in our culture, to sew for someone is to love them. You want them to be warm and comfortable in traditionally made custom fit garments, mittens, mukluks and hats. And there is something to be said about wearing traditional clothes that makes you stand taller and prouder. Many of us think fondly of a piece of traditional clothing or accessory made specifically for us by a loved one, made to be comfy and warm, literally wrapped in love. This is the same way we sew today.
In exchange for Panos sharing industry knowledge and techniques, we shared traditional knowledge, our cultural experiences of life in the Arctic and of course some teasing. We always tease when we like someone! We tried to convince Panos to move north (Move to Inuvik! Your wife and daughters will love it!) as we appreciate and respect his willingness to share his expertise. As a group, we could not get over the immutable fact that what we consider a valuable part of beaver fur (spine) for moccasin or mitten trim because of its ability to withstand wear and tear, was to Panos an unattractive part and avoided in his work!
As the week went on, we learned that Canada has never produced a female furrier according to industry standards; however, we all know women in our communities who hunt, trap, process their own furs and are excellent seamstresses. In fact, one of the attendees was none other than Eleanor Elias, a well known and respected expert trapper, huntress and seamstress. A role model we all looked up to who was did amazing things during her time living out on the land. We also heard from Panos that Canada has the world’s best quality furs. This we agree on as we know from experience that our high quality furs allowed our ancestors to survive and help visitors to our lands survive, and sparked the fur trade upon which Canada was built.
So, where do we go from here? In the current decline of the fur industry due to factors such as animal rights activism against fur, lower demand for fur products and laws that prevent exporting certain fur types, what is the future of the fur industry? As Indigenous people we are in a unique position to participate in, support, educate and promote and benefit economically from fur and the fur industry. What can this look like? Perhaps investing in a professional furrier training program in Canada? Agreements and partnerships with various Indigenous groups to have fur cooperatives and offer contemporary fur garment construction programs? Remove restrictions on fur trade across international borders? Have animal rights activists visit Tuktuuyaqtuuq in -50°C (-58° F) winters with extreme windchill so they truly appreciate the value and necessity of fur and stop vilifying fur providers and consumers?
While I don’t know the future of the global fur industry, I do understand the importance of fur to our people and communities. I have spent a significant amount of time creating compelling digital content in short format videos to educate and demonstrate the practicality of fur in real life situations and its importance in my culture. I know that Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and other Indigenous people have used and relied upon fur and fur products since time immemorial. We will continue to do so in order to practice our culture, traditions and out of absolute necessity. We are also a modern people with a right to participate in the global economy and offer a variety of contemporary fur products and clothing.
As a consumer you can support the fur industry by purchasing Indigenous made and designed fur products, follow Fur Canada social media and truthaboutfur.com blogs to learn more about the fur industry and standards. Follow and learn from various Indigenous Artists, Designers and Nations, many of whom are on various social media platforms. When you purchase fur garments and accessories you are purchasing slow fashion, high quality heirloom pieces that will last for generations. Fur pieces that are sustainable, biodegradable, warm, luxurious and much better for the environment than faux fur. Proudly wear your furs!
Taalrumiq Christina King Find me on tiktok, Facebook, Instagram, twitter, YT, LinkedIn @taalrumiq