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It's the clothes that make the man

Lynn Lau
Northern News Services

Tsiigehtchic (Aug 05/02) - For a project that aims to breath new life into a remnant of the past, it was fitting that the final product ended up first on the back of a man rediscovering his roots.

NNSL Photo

Chas models a replica 19th century costume. The costume, produced by the women of Tsiigehtchic, was one of five finished July 29 at a final workshop of the Traditional Gwich'in Clothing Project. - photo courtesy of the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute

Charles Saddington, who goes simply as Chas, was recruited July 26 to model five newly-finished replicas of a 19th century Gwich'in ceremonial outfit.

The 33-year-old was adopted out of the community in 1976. Raised in Toronto, he knew little of his Gwich'in heritage until he returned to Tsiigehtchic for the first time in February.

Chas was visiting the Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute in Tsiigehtchic last Friday when he struck up a conversation with Inuvik artist Ruth Wright.

Wright had just finished a week-long workshop for the Traditional Gwich'in Clothing Project, a two-year undertaking by the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife and the cultural institute.

Wright says she thought Chas was a tourist, but when she heard his story and found out he was Gwich'in, she nabbed him to model the outfits.

"I said, 'You're going to come with me, you're going to be the model.' He had on these sandals with muddy toes and I said, `If you're going to try these clothes on, you have to wash your feet first.' He went home and had a shower, and after he spruced up, it was like the fairy god-mother finished fixing up Cinderella."

It was an experience Chas won't soon forget.

"Once they told me what the outfits were I got prickly hairs on my back," he says. "I tried to gab a little extra so I could keep the clothes on longer. I wanted to get the feeling what would it be like to wear this running through the lands, silently hunting. Not to romanticize it or anything, because that's a danger for me when I'm here, but it was an amazing experience."

The outfits are reproductions of a boy's ceremonial costume housed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que. Women in Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik, Tsiigehtchic and Yellowknife worked for more than a year to re-create the outfits.

The Gwich'in Social and Cultural Institute is planning to present the garments at the Gwich'in Tribal Council annual assembly in Aklavik this week. One outfit will stay in each community and one will go on display at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.