Beads have been popular with the First Nations since the earliest days of the fur trade. Seed beads, in particular, have been widely used to decorate items of clothing such as moccasins and pouches.
In the 19th c. a market for objects ornamented with beads developed in Europe where beaded items such as purses were a favourite with the Victorians. Today this traditional craft continues to be part of First Nations cultures across Canada.
The objects depicted here are patches, intended to be affixed to a cap or jacket. They date from the mid 20th c. and come from northern Ontario. They were acquired by former HBC President George Heller, who donated them to the Corporate Collection in 2004. Heller began his long career in retail as an apprentice clerk in HBC’s Fur Trade Department in 1957.
Abstract designs are common subjects in aboriginal art. They often appear on clothing as well as objects like canoes, and may be painted, embroidered, beaded or made with natural items such as stone or porcupine quills. Many designs are stylized florals; others, like this one, are simple geometric shapes. This patch is enhanced by the addition of feathers.
HBC Coat of Arms
This patch features a rendering of the HBC Coat of Arms. The shape of the patch is unusual in that it is not round but rather a modified square, with contours derived from the outline of the Coat of Arms itself. The red Cross of St. George is easily recognized in the middle of the arms, as is the Company’s motto “Pro Pelle Cutem” (“For the sake of the pelt, [we take] the skin”) on the ribbon below. Less well-rendered are the animals: the four beaver in the quadrants of the arms could be anything, the fox atop the Cap of Maintenance looks more like a squirrel and the blue moose/ elk with their orange antlers are, at best, colourful rather than naturalistic. Still, the composition is vibrant and pleasing – a good example of a well-known symbol treated with some artistic license.
Kashechewan – or “Kash”, as it was known to HBC’s fur traders – lies on the north bank of the Albany River near its mouth on James Bay. It is one of two communities that were established from Old Fort Albany in the 1950s. The other, Fort Albany First Nation, is located on the southern bank of the Albany River.
Winisk is the Cree word for groundhog, or woodchuck. This patch is an interesting relic. Winisk, Ontario, was a small community at the mouth of the river of the same name where it empties into Hudson Bay. Today it is a ghost town, having been destroyed in the 1986 Winisk Flood. After the flood, the town was re-located to Peawanuck, Ontario, 30 km inland. This is a common problem with north-flowing rivers in Canada. Spring arrives in the south and snowmelt causes flooding when the ice further downstream jams the river blocking the flow.
In 1689 the Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Severn, one of the earliest English fur trading posts in the North America. It is the most northerly community in Ontario. Residents are the Mushkegowuk, which means "people who live in the muskeg". Hunting and fishing are very important to the community. This patch depicts a dog, an important part of the hunter’s toolkit.
Today the Elders of Fort Severn are still reknowned for their beadwork purses, moccasins, mukluks, gloves and mittens. This patch exemplifies the best elements of First Nations bead design. The subject, a howling wolf, is rendered naturalistically in a simple and graphic way. The clean lines are emphasized by a simple three-colour palette of blue, black and white.