Sherry Farrell Racette

“Material Culture as Encoded Objects and Memory”

The long, intricately painted hide coats at the center of Sherry Farrell Racette’s research project were created between 1780 and 1920 and are scattered among museum collections in Europe and North America. They are no longer being made. “I started working with the coats because they kept turning up in museum exhibitions and they seemed to have contradictory information,” she said. “There is no memory of the coats in First Nations communities, and with rare exceptions, they have little provenance.” She began an inventory of existing coats in 2006 and has located nearly 30 coats, about a dozen of which are from the late eighteenth century. She has found references to the coats in a variety of archival sources, including those of Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled the fur trade in much of North America for several centuries. Many of the traders married indigenous women and forged relationships with Métis and First Nations peoples. “The coats present an opportunity to explore the complex social networks that emerged during the fur trade, and the male body as a site for female artistic expression,” said Racette.

From the Interview

“There are First Nations that are very studied. We [the Timiskaming] are not one of them. And we’re often represented as having no history. A great deal of our history has been written through the eyes of other people and in some respect these objects that I work with are witnesses; history is embedded in them. If you look at them very carefully, they can tell stories.”“I want to ‘unpack’ these profoundly beautiful garments, to better understand the cultural memory encoded within them. We may not be able to get the coats back, but the reason they are so valuable is that they represent what we have forgotten and what we have lost.”—Sherry Farrell Racette

Why does your work matter?

“People used to say, ‘Well, you know, we don’t know who these women are. It can’t be found.’ And part of the challenge that I’ve taken on—almost obsessively, I’d have to say—is naming these women, because I think they matter. I think they matter. It’s not so much what I’m doing matters, it’s that what they did mattered, because they’re faceless and nameless and unrecognized, and so that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Find out more about Sherry Farrell Racette by visiting the SAR website (opens in new browser window).

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