Saving an aboriginal art from the brink

Saving an aboriginal art from the brink
Michel Labine working on caribou buttons.

Mike Labine has breathed new life into an Aboriginal art in danger of being lost forever.

Labine is one of the few people in the Northwest Territories making authentic Dene rattles and drums. Deeply passionate about his art, Labine says one of the most important aspects of his work is helping to revive ancient knowledge.

“In my life, I’ve taught up to 300 people to make drums and some of those are teaching others,” Labine said. “So in a way I’m reviving a drum culture that was almost nonexistent after the residential schools experience (because many lost that knowledge during that time). I’m working towards reintroducing the traditional ways of doing that.”

Retired from a career in government, Labine, who calls Fort Smith home, made Aboriginal crafts since he was a child in his hometown north of Sudbury, Ontario. While working in the eastern Arctic, he learned from local Inuit how to make their traditional drums and other cultural items like harpoons and fish gaffs. When he moved to the Northwest Territories, Labine continued with his craft-making by working with local Dene to learn their methods.

Labine has taken what he learned and dedicated himself to producing Aboriginal instruments like drums and rattles using traditional methods and materials. Authenticity, he says, is critical to his work.

“The Dene people here are losing their traditional ways of making drums. (They now use) frames that are bought and gluing the hides instead of sewing them on like they used to,” Labine said.

“The thing that I’m very concerned about is making them culturally correct so that it represents the culture that it comes from.”

If striving for authenticity informs Labine’s work, it is perhaps because of his effort to understand the significance to Aboriginal culture of the drums and rattles he creates.

“Traditionally, rattles are used in sweat (lodges) and they’ll use it with babies to calm them down,” he said. “It’s a soothing sound and in the sweats the relaxing sound makes you just think about the noise and all of the sudden you’re on a different plane and you experience a different realm. The drum is the same thing. It’s like a heartbeat.”

Labine says he has yet to experience a sweat lodge ceremony in which any of his rattles or drums were used, but that is not his purpose.

“I’m more of an artist and I like to produce them and make them look nice and to me it makes me feel good when somebody buys it and they’re getting quality,” Labine said. “I put it out there for them to enjoy.”

This summer Labine heads to Inuvik from July 15 to 24 for the annual Great Northern Arts Festival where he will be displaying his artwork and teaching drum and rattle-making workshops for students from across the North.

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