Fort Smith’s Jane Dragon has been collecting wild furs from across the NWT for the past 20 years and this spring finally reached her goal of a complete collection.
Dragon now has at least one pelt or taxidermy from each of the territory’s fur-bearing wildlife, from the small mouse – her final acquired piece – to the great polar bear.
Now, the elder hopes to share her collection with youth across the territory.
“It’s not just to show the kids how big the furs are and how big our animals (are), but to explain to them that we respect our animals and it’s part of our life,” Dragon said.
Dragon first started collecting furs while working at Paul William Kaeser (PWK) high school in Fort Smith, where she was asked to teach the cultural aspect of the Northern studies class. As a part-time trapper with her husband, David, she felt fur was an important part of that culture.
“I got my Aboriginal teaching program and I can write and speak in my language, so I thought it would be no problem, but when I started I realized I had nothing to teach my students. That’s when I said to my husband that if I can have one pelt of every animal we catch, I can share it with them,” she said.
Many of the pelts were difficult to acquire, Dragon said. Most of the larger animals, like muskox, she had to buy, while some, like the polar bear, were donated to her.
Twenty years and many used-up paychecks later, the elder has 18 bins of wild NWT furs – so many that she can’t even begin to count them.
“I really should count them because people keep asking me,” she said. “Some of my foxes, I have five that are all different colours; same with the wolves.”
Last month, Dragon took the full collection to schools in Hay River and Fort Resolution to share with the youth. In the past, she has brought the collection to students at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning and the FOXY retreat for young women.
“I’ve been sharing it with the kids the whole time,” she said.
For the most part students are eager to learn, but Dragon said she has had a few express concern about killing animals. Once she explains the cultural importance of trapping and hunting, the students almost always choose to take a closer look, she said.
“If you explain to them this is how people used to live at one time, that they don’t just run to the store and buy it and that it’s keeping the culture alive, they thank me for sharing with them,” she said.
Dragon, who was born in northern Saskatchewan before moving to Fort Smith when she was nine, was raised by her grandparents who were not trappers, so it wasn’t until she was married that she took up trapping with her husband. That’s where and when she learned about her culture, she said.
“My husband would get the moose and I’d help him do the moose hides and flesh beavers and whatever. That’s because I wanted to learn, so it has to be what you want in life,” she said.
“Culture is not just one thing. I learn about other cultures too. It’s not just from one native culture; it’s parts of everybody’s culture and you put it together and that’s how you live,” Dragon said.