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Caribou Skin Lodge

Public Submission
Old Fort Rae, Northwest Territories
Early 1890s
Materials & techniques
Caribou skin, red ochre, sinew
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, 997.006.001
This is a very large conical caribou skin lodge, constructed from over 30 hides stitched together with sinew. The free edges of the door opening overlap, and can be tied shut using four foot long thongs. A seam marked by an inch wide red ochre band and hide tassels runs around the lodge. It is remarkably light, weighing about 30 pounds. Home could be carried and set up anywhere. When erect, the tent was supported by a framework of spruce poles.

The skin lodge is a very important cultural artifact. It represents the very basic dwelling constructed by the Dene of the Northwest Territories, structures that were in use as far back as 5,000 years. This particular skin lodge was purchased by Frank Russell in 1893 from K’aawidda at [Old] Fort Rae for twenty-five dollars. Russell bought it for the museum collection of the University of Iowa in the United States. K’aawidda was an influential trading chief for the Dogrib Dene people, also known as [the?] Bear Lake Chief. He traded at [Old] Fort Rae on the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, and Fort Norman on the Mackenzie River.

Today Dogrib people refer to themselves as Tłįchǫ, and many can trace family connections back to K’aawidda. It is not certain who made this lodge, or the precise year it was made. Women worked together to make a lodge, so it is probable that K’aawidda’s wife was involved. A lodge like this would have housed two families, perhaps 15 people. It probably saw a few seasons of use by K’aawidda’s family before being sold to Russell.

At the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of these lodges were in everyday use by Dene in the Northwest Territories, but when canvas became a common trade item in the 1920s the caribou skin lodges quickly disappeared. After being in storage at the University of Iowa for 100 years, the skin lodge was returned in 1997, as a gift to the Tłįchǫ and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. It was unveiled at a special exhibit in June 1998.

The lodge is a significant touchstone to the past, representing security, home and warmth, and providing a link to a time when Dene travelled and lived on the land. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre has since worked with Tłįchǫ communities to make two new caribou skin lodges, based on the construction of this one.
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