Jean Sexsmith and Gary Elemie may come from different generations and regions of the NWT, yet they united over their shared passion for the ancient craft of stone tool making.
Outside the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife July 26, a group of visitors chipped away at black, white and multicoloured rocks with traditional tools. They were learning ‘flint knapping’, more commonly known as stone-tool making, from Hay River anthropologist Jean Sexsmith and Deline carver Gary Elemie.
Sexmith, who is also the visitor services intern at the heritage centre, said he has heard of people using these ancient tools in on the land activities such as hide scraping.
“One elder explained that she didn’t like metal scrapers because she found it took too much of the hide off, whereas the stone one worked better,” he said. “She was able to control the angle and sharpness of everything.”
Sexmith said the experience gives visitors a sense of the mental and physical work required in making these tools, something he hopes will shift common understandings of early human society.
“It’s an opportunity for people to understand that just because they see a stone tool doesn’t mean it’s primitive,” he said. “There’s a lot of math involved, there’s geometry involved, there’s actual physics involved as well.”
Elemie has always been an artist, transitioning between painting, soapstone carving, jewelry making and his latest focus – stone tool making. After he heard about the craft from an elder, Elemie began to teach himself by experimenting with various types of rock.
As far as he knows, Elemie is the only person in his region making stone tools.
“This method has been lost of a long time,” he said. “I’m trying to get that traditional flint knapping, try to get it back to our young kids.”
Making these tools can be fun, it can also ensure survival on the land.
“In case you get stranded or stuck, you’ve got no gun or bullet or anything like that,” said Elemie. “You can use this for a skill or a hobby. Or just to kill time.”
Elemie explains the process of stone-tool carving, or flint knapping as it is officially known, is all about practice. Some rocks can be dangerous, cutting through protective gloves, so practice on less dangerous rocks first is essential.
Elemie and Sexsmith’s collaborated through a Traditional Artist-in-Residence event run by Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Sexsmith said the activities taught at the artist-in-residence events give visitors and residents of the North an appreciation of the realities of life here before modern amenities.
“It gives people a better appreciation of the history for Indigenous people here in the North,” he said. “An appreciation that this is what they had to do to get food on the table, to hunt that caribou.”
Last year the centre ran a moosehide tanning camp Sexsmith said was very well attended, attracting 1,000 people per week. Children came all the way from Hay River and Fort Smith to take part. This year the crowds were smaller with an average of 20 people per day, yet Sexsmith said changing the summer programming is necessary to keep the offerings fresh.
There were a total of three artist-in-residence demonstrations this summer. The first was Lutsel K’e’s Alizette Lockhart, who demonstrated fish-scale art. After this father-daughter duo Damian and Rae Panayi shared their knowledge of canoe recanvassing.