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Blankets, Beads and Birch Bark; The “Quintessential” Eessentials of Early Metis History”

Mar 28, 2018

~Source: Article and photos by Roxann Barker, Photojournalist

A lifelong “collector”, Todd Fontaine, a man who is passionate in his quest for items that piece together a rich and vibrant history of the Metis, is overjoyed that his daughter, Carmella, shares in her father’s passion; consequentially, he has inspired her to learn and value the treasure her father has amassed over past years. Carmella has a wide selection of original Hudsons Bay Blanket coats to choose from and proudly models a red HB Blanket coat, featuring a Metis sash and matching red leather trim, handmade by her father a few years ago. This mustn’t have been an easy feat as leather is notoriously difficult to work with, unless you have one of the best leather sewing machines. Perhaps he did. The beaded moccasins, mukluks, gauntlets, wampum belts and complete infant’s doeskin winter snowsuit were all collector’s finds by Fontaine, who searches through yard, rummage and antique sales, occasionally trading for items he has in plentitude within his current and growing collection.

A humble and gracious man with kind eyes that are generally glued to the ground beneath his feet around his property in the neighbourhood of Riding Mountain National Park in western Manitoba, Fontaine has uncovered astounding items that, to the average eye, would simply go unnoticed; he has honed his skills in looking to the earth for clues, in a manner taught to him by a former Conservation Officer from Dauphin, the late Mr. Joe Robertson, who shared both his passion and skills in uncovering such treasures as copper pots, used at the turn of the last century, thousands upon thousands of trading beads, brought from Europe during the early years of immigration from Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and even as far as Russia; just recently, Mr. Fontaine made his wife, Laury, a necklace with Russian crystal beads – royal blue in colour, interspersed with elk teeth. Mr. Robertson took Fontaine under his wing following his retirement and in addition to offering him tips on digging deeper if one particular bead was found since it was highly likely that many more were just a little further under the surface. Hence, Fontaine has a magnificent collection of rare and ancient trading beads in a wide variety of colours, shapes and compositions. Some were found already strung into necklaces or bracelets while the majority were simply found strewn in relatively close vicinity.

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Upon viewing the collection, it became obvious that in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, ornate fabric and beaded picture frames, pin cushions and decorative pillows were very fashionable; amongst dozens of pairs of moccasins, fashioned in the early 1900’s, the beadwork is in immaculate condition, indicative of the skill and quality of materials. Several birch bark baskets, dating back to approximately 1920, appear as though they had little to no use; the bark and sinew look almost new and yet, in reality, it is impossible that they were not used on a regular basis for gathering berries and other edible root vegetables.

Within this amazing collection, all of which has been catalogued in full, thanks to the methodology used by Mr. Robertson, followed by Todd and now Carmella, every one of hundreds of arrow points, cutting tools, awls, heavy metal thimbles and needles for sewing leather, tanning/skinning equipment, coins, pipes, scraping tools, medicine pouches along with thousands of individual/unmatched beads of considerable size and intricate colour, padlocks, perfectly rounded stone weapons, coins, belts, buckles, doeskin beaded vests and jackets……have a tiny white slash that bears a number written in black lettering – an ancient yet very efficient method of tracking each piece in the collection.

According to Mr. Fontaine who learned from his expert and experienced mentor, the most significant items in the entire collection, to the best of his knowledge are 1) a copper long arrow-shaped knifepoint, estimated to be anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000 years old, 2) a six-layered Chevron Bead, approximately 2 ½ inches long and ¾” round, 3) a hand-fashioned curved skinning knife w/bone handle and 4) deep red Italian trading beads (five in total) with white centres (multi-coloured insides) and varying in shapes. Along with these is a lightly tanned leather military jacket, estimated to have been work in the late 1800’s.

One would require a display area of significant size and glass counters in order to view fully the beauty and bounty in ancient handcrafted jewelry, pipes, pottery, arrowheads and the sheer magnitude of intricately beaded pouches, decorative items and footwear, along with a magnificent cradleboard and a wide variety of heavily beaded vests, brass regalia bells and miscellaneous other items…….this is independent of another room entirely lined with books, many of which are first editions; some, like Pauline Johnson’s “Flint and Feather”, dated 1900, bound in buckskin and bearing the original signature of the author. When Mr. Fontaine is in second-hand bookstores in cities, he knows what he is looking for and thus, has accumulated his own personal library – all catalogued using Mr. Robertson’s method.

This entire collection is one that ought to be available to the public on display and available to collectors/traders who are interested in discussing/viewing the collection for their own purposes. The Fontaines live at peace with nature when they are at their permanent home near RMNP where they are skinning logs for an authentic “lob cabin” home; at present, they are living in Winnipeg for educational purposes. Even amidst the traffic, sirens, horns and precious little real fresh air, Todd Fontaine, humble and generous man that he is, has embarked on a “neighbourhood garden” where others of like minds can drop off seeds, extra tomato plants, potatoes for planting, overcrowded perennials from existing gardens and/or saplings; the community is excited about Todd Fontaine’s project while he and his wife, Laury, hope for a
successful crop of fresh vegetables for the many people they meet who are in need of garden produce, some friendly company and an inviting green space with colourful flowers, benches where neighbours can visit, pick a few tomatoes and a cucumber and help with the weeding. This is both a noble and humble act for this walking/talking human encyclopedia on the vibrant history of Canada’s Metis people.

So it goes…….Todd Fontaine looks to the earth in search of the treasures from the past and at the same time, continues to look to the earth in the hope that, like his ancestors, people will take from the earth only what they need and leave the rest for others in need. The ground under his feet has unearthed abundant treasure; it would be wonderful if others as generous as himself would provide a safe place where students, scholars, those interested in their Metis past and/or even passers-by could glimpse or spend as much time as they cared to, viewing or further educating themselves on these treasures unearthed – quintessential “essentials” of early Metis history and life….should you be interested in further information, please contact this website and your inquiries will be forwarded to Mr. Fontaine.