Written by: Laura Golebiowski, Indigenous Heritage Section
Editor’s note: November 14-20 is Métis Week, the annual invitation to remember the leadership, advocacy, sacrifice and legacy of Louis Riel, and to celebrate the continued achievements of Métis peoples across their homelands.
RETROactive readers will already be familiar with Matt Hiltermann for his extensively researched accounts of the Métis presence in southern Alberta. Did you know he is also a skilled fingerweaver and sashmaker? With Matt’s help, writer Laura Golebiowski dives into the historical roots and evolving cultural significance of the Métis sash. Note: banner image above courtesy of Travel Alberta.
Métis public historian Matt Hiltermann is the first to note the origins of the Métis sash are convoluted and obscure. Though several cultures produced woven textiles, the sash’s beginnings are understood to lie with the traditional weaving practices of eastern woodland First Nations, combined—quite literally—with woolen goods introduced by early French visitors. The coming together of these two cultures and crafts produced a unique item truly of its time and place. “It couldn’t have happened any other way or anywhere else.”
With practical beginnings, the sash likely served numerous functions, including a rope, tumpline (a carrying strap worn across the head), pocket, tourniquet, emergency sewing kit or belt. The earliest designs were that of the double-chevron or arrowhead. The Assomption sash, or ceinture fléchée (“arrow belt”), proliferated with the fur trade and made its way to west. Varying colours and designs were used to signify rank, status and trading allegiances or employment.
The Métis began to adopt the sash as a symbol of their people in the early 1800s, and by the 1830s and 1840s fingerweaving was taught at both the St. Boniface Academy and the Red River Collegiate in Manitoba. Fingerweaving required little equipment—it needed no loom or apparatus—and was portable, making it well fitted to what the Métis had at their disposal, both in settlement and on the hunt. A written account of the 1874 signing of Treaty 4 at Fort Qu’Appelle describes a Métis buffalo hunter as, “attired in blue cloth capote with brass buttons, cotton shirt (unstarched), moleskin trousers and new deerskin moccasins with broad L’Assomption belt or sash of variegated colours in silk around his waist…”
Matt’s own fingerweaving practice is rooted in his head, hands and heart: through his work in public history, his own weaving practice, and his identity as a Métis person with strong familial connections. He describes his introduction to fingerweaving as occurring, “at the intersection of desire and luck”, the desire to own a historically-accurate fingerwoven sash, and the luck of having a colleague who could teach him. Today, Matt has clocked approximately 10,000 weaving hours and has created countless sashes, most of which are gifts and commissions. Each sash takes at least 40 hours to complete, with some taking over 100 hours. Every thread is placed with intention and care.
Sash designs, uses and interpretations evolved over the last two centuries, influenced by both advances in loom technology and the Métis fight for rights and recognition. Some people have assigned new meanings to the traditional colours of the sash: red to recognize historical roots, blue and white for the Métis Nation flag, green for fertility, growth and agricultural connections and black to represent Métis dispossession and oppression. The sash may not have always meant what it does today, but that is not a bad thing, Matt says. Rather, the reinterpretation and reconsideration of the sash signifies a culture that is living and evolving. Matt’s favourite works are those he calls, “story sashes”: commissioned pieces where he can represent the wearer’s story through colour and pattern choices. This is a collaborative, dialogical process of multiple narratives; the story of the wearer that the sash is telling, and the story of Matt as the weaver. “There is still an element of myself in there,” Matt says.
Matt speaks eloquently about weaving as a metaphor for his work; both in historical research and sash-making. Whether he is telling stories, talking about history or considering identity, each practice sees Matt weaving together narratives: bringing together multiple threads into one cohesive whole. Whether literal or metaphorical, “each thread acts as a warp and a weft, always intertwining and interlacing with each other.”
Matt hopes for more opportunities to teach fingerweaving in the future, when it is safe to do so in-person. He feels particularly strongly about teaching the practice to Métis youth. The significance of the continued practice is not lost on him: “When I started to notice the impact that [my sashes] had on those who saw it, especially Métis people, it gave me a sense of contributing to something bigger.”
Marsii Matt for sharing another aspect of your knowledge and experience. You can connect with Matt and view more of his work on Instagram at @thesashmaker. To learn more about fingerweaving, Matt suggests Fingeweaving Basics by Gerald L. Findley and Carol James’ Fingerweaving Untangled: An Illustrated Beginner’s Guide.The Métis Nation of Alberta is hosting several virtual workshops and events for Métis Week 2021.
AB Métis Youth. (2020). Finger weaving w/ Matt Hiltermann (YouTube)
Barkwell, Lawrence and Louise Vien. (2011). The history of the Métis sash. Occasional papers of the Louis Riel Institute, Louis Riel Institute.
Jessie Ray Short. (2019). Jessie and Matt talk sash (weaving). (Vimeo)