A tiny mouse perched atop a piece of wood hardly stands out against the vast array of pelts and crafts made from many more impressive animals, but it holds a place of importance nonetheless.
The mouse, a gift from her husband, was the last piece of a collection 30 years in the making for Jane Dragon who, beginning in the 1980s, sought to acquire an example of every animal in the North.
“I’ve tried to do as much as I can to teach people about our way of life,” Dragon told The Hub. “I tell the kids, we’re not killers. We use the pelts for many things, but it’s never about the killing.”
Dragon’s collection began in the 1980s when she was working in the school system. Knowing she and her husband were avid, if part time, trappers, he asked her to help with some teaching materials for the newly implemented Northern studies classes. Dragon said she had little idea how much the project would grow and take on a life of its own at the time.
“I thought it would be a small thing,” she said, explaining that she made a deal with her husband to take one pelt from every trip to the bush to use in class.
Now finally complete, the collection has been touring schools in the South Slave for the past few weeks, bringing its purpose back full circle.
“Most of the animals are full-size, so the kids can get an idea of what they really look like” said Dragon. “So many of them never get to experience the wildlife here.”
The same could not be said for Dragon’s own children who spent weeks at a time on the trapline with their parents growing up. Connie Belanger joked that while she wasn’t a fan of her mother’s attention-grabbing fur hats as a teenager, she appreciated the process it took to make them.
“We lived a very traditional way of life,” she said. “I’m honoured to have my family be part of this and creating this really unique collection.”
The pelts came to Dragon either through her own efforts or through donations, though she admits she purchased a few. She said often people leaving the North would have heard about her collection and would send pelts they didn’t want to bring with them to be included.
Perhaps one of the most impressive items, however, came to Dragon from a more official source than most. While she had the skin from one Polar Bear paw, she didn’t have a full pelt. One year, while in Yellowknife with the furs, the then-minister of the environment heard about the gap in the lineup. Dragon said a few weeks after she returned home, the pelt of a full Polar Bear appeared on her doorstep.
“People have been very generous,” she said. “There is never any waste.”
One of the key elements of the educational component, Dragon said, was learning how to respect the pelts and present them to the students in a way that was both accessible and followed traditional learning. After consulting elders and hunters and trappers, she learned that as soon as the hide was tanned, it could be treated like any other material. As such, she said she often puts them on the floor for the smaller children to crawl around on.
“We raised our children on the wildlife of this place and I want other children – even if they can’t be in the bush with their families – to at least have a taste of it,” said Dragon. “I learned everything I know from my elders.”
While posing for a photo, Dragon chastened her daughter for not wanting to wear the same hat that, while in high school, had so embarrassed her from atop her mother’s head. The theme of which, however, ran through the collection and multi-decade project to amass it.
“Always be proud of what you are,” said Dragon.