Mary Michell Biography

mary michellMrs. Mary Michell is an Elder Carrier woman from Lake Babine Nation. She was born and raised in Old Fort, BC in 1926. She is the daughter of Hloom (Alec Joseph), Hereditary Chief of the Caribou Clan and Celina Joseph of the Bear Clan. Mary is the eldest of the ten siblings in her family. Her formal schooling ended at grade three when the school in Old Fort was closed. However, her education began long before this and continued long after the three years of schooling, through the clan women in her family. When she became a woman at thirteen, her mother began to teach her how to prepare and tan moosehides and how to make all the crafts that came out of this. Through the traditional clan system, Mary has been hired to make many things including: wedding dresses, vests and jackets, gun cases, purses, mukluks, moccasins and gloves. In her younger years, Mary (along with her brother John) also learned how to trap. The furs she caught and the crafts she made helped to subsidize the family's income as she came from a family of ten.

The crafts that Mary makes from moosehides is entirely a handmade process that includes seasonal steps throughout the year. This begins in the summer salmon season when Mary puts salmon heads aside in a container. The salmon heads sit in the barrel for two weeks to extract the oil. Then, in the fall moose are hunted by her husband Matthew, and/or the men of the family. In the fall pine cones are also picked to be used to smoke the hides. No part of the moose is ever wasted. All edible parts are prepared and put away. Mary puts the moosehides away until spring which is when she begins the tanning process. This starts with a two week process of scraping and preparing the moosehides - removing all the hair on the outside and the fat and such on the inside. After the hides are cleaned, they go into the salmon oil as this makes the hides soft and pliable. The hides are then put on square frame stretchers. The hide is worked upon for about three days before they are taken down in preparation to be smoked. A small pit is dug in the ground and a cone frame is built around it. The pine cones are then lit to make smoke for about half an hour. It is this smoking process that gives the finished tanned hides their distinctive golden colour. However, if requested, Mary will forego the smoking process and whatever she makes will be a white (unsmoked) moosehide item.

Over the years Mary knows exactly how long it will take her to make specific items. A jacket will take two weeks; moccasins take two days; gloves take one week; purses take one week; and mukluks take two weeks.

Mary has continued to work on crafts through to today. At the age of eighty-one, and sixty-three years of marriage to her husband Matthew, she continues to make crafts. Most recently (May 2008) the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, the Honourable Steven Point (Xwe li qwel tel), was presented with a jacket Mary made. Other dignitaries who wear jackets made by Mary Michell include: Department of Indian Affairs Minister David Crombie; First Nations politician Elijah Harper; Grand Chief Eddy John; Tribal Chief Justa Monk, Tribal Chief Joseph Michell; and Nisga'a politician Harry Nyce.

Thank you


Many thanks to Cathi Charles Wherry, Arts Program Coordinator, of the First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council who provided tremendous assistance in the establishment of the award.

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