Research on First Nations (Innu-Naskapi) Iconography


The following article presents an analysis of painted patterns on caribou skin coats (and other articles of clothing) produced by the Innu-Naskapi and Cree nations from territories that range from northeastern Quebec (or Lac-Saint-Jean), to the Labrador Peninsula, all the way to James Bay, Canada. More specifically, it is a study of the iconography on specific pieces of clothing that were created and worn as early as the 18th century until the beginning of the 20th century to ensure successful hunting game.

A successful hunt would allow an entire tribe to survive throughout the winter and into the next spring even in most difficult conditions. This was a very important practice and symbolic work that was essentially painted by women, however, the hunting part of this practice was reserved for men. This practice seems to be unknown by the craftswomen of our present time.


As an experienced graphic designer, I am always amazed by the rich indigenous designs coming from an earlier era. The intelligence and beauty of these ancient designs make me question the education I received in graphic design in North America, particularly its foundations in the school of Bauhaus. The diversity and the visual richness of these patterns have never been submitted to formal analysis and I feel that now is the time.

The following article presents an analysis of painted patterns on caribou skin coats (and other articles of clothing) produced by the Innu-Naskapis and Cree nations from territories that range from northeastern Quebec (or Lac-Saint-Jean), to the Labrador Peninsula, all the way to James Bay, Canada.

More specifically, it is a study of the iconography on specific pieces of clothing that were created and worn as early as the 18th century until the beginning of the 20th century.

Photo by Carole Charette, by kind permission of National Museums Scotland, A-1881.37.44 (detail).

Participant observation and interviews among today’s communities confirmed that knowledge of previous cultural practice is absent. This impoverishment is most noticeable when comparing coats created at the end of 20th century with coats created today—a sign of an evanescent practice.

Approached from an ethnological-aesthetical point of view, this innovative research will revisit this abstract visual language and enrich the body of knowledge in technical and artistic-design processes.

Data collected over the past century came from communities already significantly decimated by famine, multiple epidemics of flu and other diseases that raged at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, resulting in the premature demise of oral traditions and practices.

The persecution of native communities due to the federal Canadian government’s policy and “philosophy of exclusion and cultural annihilation and cultural genocide”1 widely contributed to the decline of ancestral clothing design practice which incidentally and tragically coincided with the disappearance of the herds of caribou in ancestral hunting territories.

Migratory hunting practice was a vital necessity considering that the animals moved in small herds around a huge territory and were the main source of food and materials to produce tools. While the hunters would know the migrating habits of the herds, ‘luck’ was an important part of success since hunters didn’t have access to today’s means of transportation and modern technologies for locating game. A successful hunt would allow an entire tribe to survive throughout the winter and into the next spring even in most difficult conditions.

Tanner provided testimony of his own experience of a winter spent hunting game with the Cree.2 The hunting party carried minimal and essential transportable equipment and bannock from their summer camps to the winter ones, and vice versa. He recalls exhaustion from walking in heavy snow without food in order to retrieve material left behind the previous year.

Hunters wore two “magical” coats per year (one for summer and one for winter). Coats were designed for one type of hunting activity and for one season and never used for anything else. Once used, the coats would lose their magical power. Hunters would therefore either abandon the coat on-site or exchange it for other goods.3

Today, painted caribou coats are rare and are no longer made in indigenous communities (the way they used to), but they still retain an important place among elders with respect to their material cultural heritage. The beliefs associated with these artifacts honour the strength and survival of their forbearers who were confronted with harsh, precarious and rough conditions.

By analyzing artifacts from that period of time now preserved in museum collections, we know that indigenous communities used hand-painted ceremonial caribou skin coats specifically dedicated to hunting these animals. This ritualistic and traditional hand-painted practice was also applied to other pieces of clothing such as mittens, leggings, hats, moccasins as well as ceremonial hides and bags. This important symbolic work was essentially painted by women,4 however the hunting part of this practice was reserved for men.

My work follows the footsteps of anthropologists Webber (1986) and Speck (1914) who studied the material culture of the Innu-Naskapi and Cree communities in the 1920s and 1960s. I have also included the work done by Burnham (1992) who was a textile curator at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and who collected data on painted caribou coats for a period of over twenty-five years, and who illustrated, in her book, about sixty of these artifacts now part of Canadian, American and European museum collections.

Inspired by these indigenous designs, I initiated this study several years ago with the intention of sight-reading the patterns to make a semiological analysis and to create a syllabary.5 I had also planned a formal analysis of the patterns. My first intent was soon abandoned because of the challenges and difficulties of gathering testimony from the elders who I hoped would know about these practices and who I hoped would be able to confirm the meaning of the patterns. It turned out that almost everyone consulted had never seen the caribou coats or could not recall any tradition about the making of such coats. Perhaps this was because their community was dislocated, their culture and heritage was disrupted, or simply because they didn’t want (or were afraid) to talk about what I had gathered.

I then decided to focus my energy on developing a formal study and analysis. I decided to take into account the myths and legends and the spiritual and religious practices of that time to preserve the cultural dimension linked to these patterns—a dimension which has a strong symbolic value inextricable to my research.

Photo by Carole Charette, with the authorization of the Canadian Museum of History: III-B-589, c. 1700, Collection Speyer.

The anthropologist, Adrian Tanner reports that caribou coats carried such a huge importance among Quebec-Labrador indigenous religious practices at that time because they constituted the material representation of the hunters’ visions as well as their stories and songs accompanied by the rhythm of the drum made from caribou hide.6 Such stories and songs preceded the hunt in the hopes to create visions and to connect with the caribou’s spirit.

For their part, shamans drew their inspiration from the real world as well as myths and legends linked to their spirituality. Ancient artifacts refer to the shaman’s vision and dreams that connected with the “spirit of the caribou living and coming down from the sacred mountain.”7 According to Burnham, the dreams, magic and visions of the shamans or the best hunters were interpreted and depicted by the women of the tribe, who created these coats and other accessories in hopes of a successful hunt and to “please the caribou.”8

Although the men’s visions initiated the design of the coats, Burham asserts that “Less than half of twenty-one different elements found on coats might be considered of significance worthy of a hunter’s dream. When decorations of the coats are carefully analyzed, it seems likely that one or perhaps two main motifs were dictated by man, while the rest was left up to the woman.”9

A frequently occurring design motif is a double curve. Webber and Speck present the hypothesis that the double-curve is an abstract representation of the antlers on a caribou head and is associated with the worship of the spirit of the caribou.10 Interviews done with Innu women elders in 2013 offer another path of interpretation and meaning. Female elders suggest that the double curve represents the blueberry flower or the spirit of the forest.11 This leads us to believe that the interpretation of a particular pattern by indigenous people has been, or still is, polysemic or that its significance has evolved over time.

Apart from the field data collected by Webber and the study of the double curve, previous ethnographical anthropological research gives us very little interpretation of other geometrical or organic patterns.

Methods and Material

I began with documentary research in the Innu community at the Mashteuiatsh Museum archive centre in Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec, at the Canadian History Museum in Gatineau and at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM in Toronto). Next I met with communities on site. My project was approved by the Band Council of Mashteuiatsh and I worked closely with their cultural committee to set up interviews, presentations and participant observations. I also visited another Innu community (Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam) northeast of Quebec, located on the St. Lawrence shore in Sept-Îles, and worked with the Cree Cultural Institute-Aanischaaukamikw from Oujé-Bougoumou. I studied numerous coats and other related artifacts distributed among several museums and collections around the world. Future meetings and on-site visits are being planned.

Data Collection and Observations

Raw data collection began with an extensive literature review followed by identification of relevant artifacts among museum collections. Formal permissions were granted for me to conduct on-site studies, make observation notes, take photos, etc.

Data Management

Following the preliminary study of patterns, I developed a grid for the analysis and classification of the raw data collected from the field. This grid identifies elements of each group of patterns (such graphic design elements as colour, lines, dots, circles, etc.) and visualizes their evolution, their assemblage and their specificities over the period studied (beginning 18th until mid-20th century).

I rapidly observed that the biaxial symmetry (graphic elements that duplicate four times) featured on earlier coats from the beginning of the 17th century, was no longer used and completely disappeared by mid-18th century, being replaced by a type of double-curve.

Elements of Design and Composition

Remarkably, the work of ancient tribes was guided by an intuitive understanding of design principles of composition. The more frequently used principles were contrasts of form, structure, weight, size, direction, colour and rhythm. This visual heritage provides evidence of ancient knowledge and mastery of the creative principles in graphic design.

Even today, a successful design relies on the sensible and innovative use of these principles, no matter if for architecture, industrial, web or graphic design.

Preliminary Analysis

When studying the painted coats from Innu-Naskapi and Cree communities, I immediately noticed that the women knew and mastered basic design principles. Their creations were composed of such basic design elements as geometrical shapes and dotted lines made either with circles, squares or rectangles and even diamonds.

According to Burnham, the central group of patterns on the back of the coat were dictated by the men, the remainder of the coat was interpreted by the woman making it.12

There are numerous variations in the motifs: a series of lines (grouped and mixing straight, thin, medium, large, dotted), geometrical shapes such as squares, circles, diamonds, rectangles, triangles, etc. I also found crosses, hearts, vegetal patterns and broad variations of the previously mentioned double-curves. The triangular sections (gores) might representation the “sacred mountain” where the spirit of the caribou lives.13

Double-curves are so diversified that I hypothesize that they were created as some kind of personal distinctive signature. Some are geometric and abstract, others are more inspired by forms coming from nature, or simply incorporating dots and circles perhaps concrete representations as asserted by Webber.14

Symmetry is widely used: quadrates, double-curves, groups of lines often starting with one colour in the center, etc. Symmetrical patterns appear on the shoulders, on the middle of the sleeves, on cuffs and hems—harmoniously distributed all over the coat almost as columns starting from the centre of the back as well as on the front of each lateral panel.

On all coats, a larger red-brownish (red ochre) line begins at the bottom extremity and it continues on the front panel going vertically all the way to the collar. This same large line appears on the end of the cuff. The back of the coat is magnificent with vertical assemblages composed of groups of lines on the top part opening up to a triangle containing double-curves and other design elements. A gore is constructed from an additional piece of hide and inserted to expand the bottom of the coat.

Some coats have as many as three designs and the most complex coats have up to five.

All coats have one design featuring two equilateral triangles meeting at a central top point. Other designs are complex at the bottom and become simple as the triangle becomes narrower. Perhaps this particular group of patterns is the symbolic representation of the shaman’s or hunter’s vision.

Generally, designs include empty space that confers rhythm to the overall composition. On most of the coats there is a flange in the shape of either a portion of an arc, angle or rectangle as a signature component. Flanges are sewn around the neck and fall over the back. Most of the time it contains design elements to match the rest of the coat.

Large shapes are shaded with hatchings: either vertical, horizontal, oblique, etc., which demonstrates a quest for perfection and balance. The precision and the quality of the execution and the regularity of the lines, the repetition and patterns are evidence of strong visual perception.

Thus far my work has identified a visual “signature” in the execution of the patterns painted in a specific period of time, indicating perhaps that these coats could have been made by the same person. This seems consistent with Burnham who states that the most talented woman would be released from daily domestic tasks to spend all her time designing a coat.15

Women used a palette of pigments taken from the earth of their territory: the yellow comes from fish eggs, the red comes from ochre or iron oxide, the blue-green from copper oxide and black from a high concentration of copper oxide.

In the course of colonization, more colours appeared such as vermillion red (sulphide of mercury or cinnabar) and the washing blue (Reckitt’s blue). The evolution of colour allows us to estimate the date of contact with Europeans and Western impact on the production of these coats.

The Canadian Museum of History and a few other museums have participated with a spectrometric pigment study conducted by the Canadian Institute of Conservation (ICC). This analysis has resulted in a timeline of pigmentation and the consequent accurate dating of the artifacts.

Preliminary Findings

This research study will provide perspective, determine stylistic attributes and define commonalities and similarities in compositions, bringing a deeper understanding of the indigenous female’s creative process.

Surprising new artifacts were added in 2015 and while the analysis has not yet been completed, the preliminary observations are presented here as initial fragments. I am planning on more data gathering over the upcoming year, but to date I can confirm that the patterns vary in quality, complexity, and dexterity over time and clearly show the wide imagination of craftswomen.


I conclude this article by expressing the deep respect I have for the indigenous communities and their material and intangible culture.

I have been guided by verifiable graphic design data and the scientific approach.

It is my greatest wish that my research will help community members (indigenous and non-indigenous) discover their symbolic and spiritual values and bridge the past and the present.

As a Professor in Graphic Design, I hope that this research will inspire future students within indigenous communities to undertake design education, to better understand this creative process by offering the necessary tools and keys and to re-appropriate their ancestral graphic environment and practices.


  1. “TRC—Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” 2015,
  2. 2 Dorothy Burnham, To please the caribou. (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992)
  3. Dorothy Burnham, To please the caribou. (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992), 3
  4. Alika Podolinsky Webber, Symbols of Breath. Self-publication. (Ottawa, 1986)
  5. Inuktitut syllabics (Inuktitut: ᖃᓂᐅᔮᖅᐸᐃᑦ [qaniuja:qpa’it][1] or ᑎᑎᕋᐅᓯᖅ ᓄᑖᖅ [titi au’siq nu’ta:q]) is a writing system (specifically an abugida) used by the Inuit in Nunavut and in Nunavik, Quebec. In 1976, the Language Commission of the Inuit Cultural Institute made it the co-official script for the Inuit languages, along with the Latin script. Reference: retrieved March 3, 2016
  6. Adrian Tanner, Bringing Home Animals: Religious Ideology and Mode of Production of the Mistassini Cree Hunters, (New York: St. Martin Press, 1979)
  7. Alika Podolinsky Webber, Symbols of Breath. Self-publication. (Ottawa, 1986)
  8. Dorothy Burnham, To please the caribou. (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992)
  9. Dorothy Burnham, To please the caribou. (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992), 2
  10. Alika Podolinsky Webber, Symbols of Breath. Self-publication. (Ottawa, 1986)
  11. Personal notes collected during on-site interviews, Charette, C. 2013 [Unpublished manuscript]
  12. 12 Dorothy Burnham, To please the caribou. (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992)
  13. Dorothy Burnham, To please the caribou. (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992) and Alika Podolinsky Webber, Symbols of Breath. Self-publication. (Ottawa, 1986)
  14. Alika Podolinsky Webber, Nipish-Floral patterns among the Northeastern Algonkians. [Unpublished manuscript] (Ottawa, 1998)
  15. 15 Dorothy Burnham, To please the caribou. (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1992)

Originally published in GDC Journal #7, 2018

Dr. Carole Charette

Dennis is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where he serves as a Graduate Director of the xdMFA

Dr. Carole Charette FGDC is a researcher, an Assistant Professor for the Design Studies program at MacEwan University, presently investigating First Nations iconography. She holds a PhD in art and design education from Université Concordia, Montréal, an MFA in typography, and a Bachelor degree in Communication Design from Université Laval, Québec.

She founded, with Bernard Houde, Trio communication-marketing inc. and works for several clients such as ING, RDI, UQAC, Conseil canadien du bois, Desjardins, etc.

Throughout her career as a designer and a teacher, she has maintained the highest performance standards within a diverse range of functions, which is clearly demonstrated in her past successes.

She served as the president and CEO of the Société des Designers Graphiques du Québec (SDGQ) for ten years. Through her actions within SDGQ, she organized two international conferences, design contests, a series of lectures, websites, as well as developing many tools and publications to support design practitioners. She is a GDC Fellow and an SDGQ honorary member.

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