Stitches Tell Stories in Indigenous Regalia

Project Spotlight: An exhibition of graduation regalia brings together 20+ years of “Native Grad” clothing from across Yukon. 

Création Représentation Souveraineté autochtone
Two white hide dresses with hand-beaded flowers in purple and red are displayed on black mannequins against a yellow background that reads “Honouring Our Future: Yukon First Nations Graduation Regalia” in purple text.

There isn’t a stitch on Megan Jensen’s 2013 high school graduation dress that wasn’t sewn with meaning, with intention.

Made from white deer hide, the strapless dress features a painted killer whale, done in turquoise and green. This honours Jensen’s ties to southeast Alaska. The beadwork speaks to the northern connections that stem from her inland Tlingit ancestry.

“It was kind of a mix of my mom knowing who I am and the kind of regalia that I love,” says Jensen, whose Tlingit name is Guná, and who is a member of the Carcross Tagish First Nation. “The process was about making it my own and paying homage to my own history, where I come from, and creating a story with the dress … when it comes to our art forms, there is usually always a story. It’s never empty.”

A white and black cape with copper and blue beading and embroidery and a black vest with a circular blue patch and embroidered and beaded stylized killer whale are displayed on black mannequins against a blue background.

That story is one of many told in the Honouring Our Future: Yukon First Nations Graduation Regalia exhibit, on display at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre until April 30. It is a collaboration between the Yukon Arts Centre, Teslin Tlingit Council and Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

It was a high priority show for curator Lisa Dewhurst when she accepted the position of First Nations advisor to the Yukon Arts Centre in 2020.

Dewhurst, who is of the Nlaka’pamux nation of Merritt, B.C., lives in Teslin. There, she has been adopted into the Kukhittan Clan of the Teslin Tlingit (Raven Children) and has been given the Tlingit name of Keis.ey, which refers to the time just before the dawn breaks.

Two yellow hide top and skirt sets are displayed on black mannequins against a grey background. The left features a tassel pendant necklace and a wide black belt and black fedora, both beaded with mutlicoloured flowers, whit ethe right has a beaded red choker, a pink and blue flower patch on the top left breast, and multicoloured flower patches on the skirt.

“The Yukon First Nation Graduation, or ‘Native Grad’ as it has become known, has been occurring since 1975,” says Dewhurst. It takes place in addition to the cap-and-gown ceremonies offered by Yukon high schools, but highlights something special for First Nations grads.

“Many [First Nations] students have to leave their home communities and attend their final high school years in Whitehorse. ‘Native Grad’ has become a shining example of the increasing progress and pride of Indigenous people in the Yukon as culture and language revitalization is celebrated and recognized.”

Dewhurst says the pieces included in the show date back roughly 20 years. Entire communities came together to plan many of the dresses, vests, moccasins and more. Some pieces, she says, are begun years in advance of a student’s graduation.

Close up image of a beaded hibiscus flower in red with green leaves and pink outline, sewn on to a white hide dress.

One of the dresses featured in the exhibition came out of a promise two women made to each other when they were in high school—for one to someday sew the dress of the other’s daughter. 

“Nobody puts these dresses together in any hurried fashion,” says Dewhurst. “There is so much detail and love put into them … some of them are made with home-tanned moose that, in some cases, takes a whole year to process. There’s different fur on some of them, so that depends on the trapping season.”

The aesthetics are stunning, says Jensen. She encourages audiences to appreciate the skilled beadwork, tufting, tanning, sewing and planning that goes into each design. Then she asks audiences to think about what that design means—what each piece of regalia stands for.

9 pieces of hide clothing, a mix of dresses, vest and capes in white, black and yellow and accompanied by accessories like boots and headdresses are displayed on black mannequins against a grey background.

“I think about our struggles in high school, not just passing a class, but the struggle of identity and living in two worlds,” she says. “As Indigenous people, we yearn to practice things on the land, to be with Elders. We put a lot on hold to be able to succeed. The regalia exemplifies the sacrifice and the hard emotional and spiritual alongside the academic work.”

It has taken resilience, she says, for Yukon First Nations to get to the place they are now, where they’re able to celebrate themselves in this way.

“It’s overwhelmingly emotional,” she says. “You feel an extreme, immense sense of love for who you are. It’s a day to celebrate and your identity is heightened when you put on your regalia.”

Closeup on a polished silver cuff etched with reliefs of stylized animal designs and beaded with a border of mother of pearl buttons.

The exhibit includes regalia from all Yukon First Nations, with the exception of the Ross River Dena Council and the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation. Dewhurst, who called for submissions on social media and via interviews on CBC radio, says she’d love to include late contributions from those communities, as the exhibition is slated to tour the Yukon once its run finishes at KDCC.


Credit: This article was originally published in February 2021 on the Yukon Arts Centre website. COURTESY YUKON ARTS CENTRE.

This story is part of the Yukon Arts Centre Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.