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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

Nancy Fonicello's porcupine  quills, 2013.
Nancy Fonicello's porcupine quills, 2013. Photo by Wayde Carroll.

Dene (Athabascan) artists have traditionally stitched, wrapped and woven porcupine quills to ornament fine skin clothing, moccasins and bags. Quill borders and panels were often added to chief’s jackets and other clothing of social and ceremonial importance. In more recent history, quillwork was replaced with glass beading, allowing little traditional knowledge of quill work to survive. A few Alaska Native artists are striving to revitalize and expand upon this art form.

During the week-long Dene Quill Art residency organized by the Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum in 2013, Alaska Native artists Emma Hildebrand (Koyukon Athabascan) and Shirley Holmberg (Tanana Athabascan), with quill artist and ethnographic conservator Nancy Fonicello, demonstrated and explained their techniques for working with quills to each other. They explored techniques and shared their expertise with conservators, students and museum visitors. The artists also studied historic quillwork objects from the Living Our Cultures exhibition, Anchorage Museum collections and Dena’inaq’ Huch’ulyeshi: The Dena’ina Way of Living exhibition.

The educational videos presented here provide detailed explanations and demonstrations of how to work with quill from cleaning and dying, to techniques for sewing, wrapping folding and weaving. The videos also introduce the artists, who share information and insights about quillwork, studying museum collections and working together. To learn more about Athabascan culture, please visit the exhibition website Sharing Knowledge at where you will find information about all Alaska Native cultures and educational materials in the Resources section.

In addition, an interdisciplinary curriculum is provided – Gifts from the Land: Lifeways and Quill Art of the Athabascan Peoples. Students will learn about the Athabascan peoples of Alaska: their languages, traditional values and knowledge, subsistence lifeways, and historic artifacts, with a focus on porcupines as a local resource and its quills as an artistic material. There are five activity-based lessons that can be used over a week, individually, or modified to meet class needs.

Participants in the Dene Quill Art residency, 2013.
Participants in the Dene Quill Art residency, 2013. From left to right: Shirley May Holmberg, Nancy Fonicello and Emma Hildebrand. Photo by Wayde Carroll.


Introduction (1 video)

Materials & Preparation (1 video)

Dyeing Quills (1 video)

Quillwork Techniques: Folding and Wrapping (1 video)

Quillwork Techniques: Edging (1 video)

Quillwork Techniques: Weaving (1 video)

Meet the Artists (1 video)

Meet the Conservators (1 video)

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