Gertie Tom

Adäka Artist Spotlight: All about an artist dedicated to language revitalization. 

Creating Indigenous Sovereignty Representation
Woman working on a beaded tongue for a pair of moccasin or mukluks.

Gertie Tom is an artist who has devoted almost the entirety of her career to cultural preservation and language revitalization. This devotion was recognized on January 1, 2021, when Tom was inducted into the Order of Yukon. Speaking to reporter Alexander Gatensby at the time, she said simply “I just help people, that’s what I do.”

Born in the late 1920s, Tom grew up in the Big Salmon River region of Yukon before moving to Whitehorse, YT, with her family in 1948, where she still lives today. Tom is a member of the Crow clan; her Northern Tutchone name is Et’ats’inkhalme. She was taught how to sew by her mother, but she became truly interested in creating after her mother began describing traditional garments and functional objects to her, and she came into contact with some of them in use by her aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. Concerned that many of these functional objects were no longer being made due to the convenience of purchasing mass-produced versions from stores, Tom set out to preserve the skills needed to make them herself.

Tom works with glass beads, sealskin, canvas ad moosehide as well as coyote, rabbit, beaver and wolf fur in her artwork, crafting baby booties, mukluks, moccasins, mitts, hats and vests that are often intricately beaded with patterns passed down from her mother and grandmother. She sells her pieces online through the Yukon First Nation Arts Shop and at festivals like Adäka Cultural Festival. 

Outside of this visual practice, Tom has a significant written and oral storytelling practice, having been involved in language preservation work since 1961, when she began working for CBC radio in Whitehorse as a translator and broadcaster. In the late 60s and early 70s she served as a Community Health Worker, using her translation knowledge to help doctors and nurses deliver care to patients. She began working as a Native Language Specialist with the Yukon Native Language Centre (YNLC) in 1977, eventually attaining her Native Language Instructor Certificate from Yukon College in Whitehorse in 1986. During her time at YNLC, Tom developed a practical alphabet for Northern Tutchone and published multiple booklets and materials to support language learning, including Dùts’um Edhó Ts’ètsi Yu Dän K’í, or How to Tan Hides in the Native Way (1981), Èkeyi: Gyò Cho Chú, or My Country: Big Salmon River (1987), a student’s noun dictionary, conversation lessons in Northern Tutchone and an extensive collection of traditional stories from herself and other Elders living in the Carmacks region of Yukon. Although she “retired” from her formal language work in 1992, she went on to record a series of language lessons with YNLC between 2004 and 2007 to teach the Northern Tutchone dialect. 

Tom continues to make and sell artwork to this day. Her pieces can be found in the Yukon Permanent Art Collection in Whitehorse as well as at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Notably, when six of her works were acquired by MOA in the 1990s, Tom personally included documentation details about provenance, use and materials as well as ideas and interpretations of the objects from her own point of view.

Woman working on a beaded tongue for a pair of moccasin or mukluks.
Tom working on a beaded tongue for a moccasin or mukluk in 2021. Courtesy of Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association.

This video was originally published by the Yukon First Nations Arts on October 15, 2021. Courtesy of Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association.

Launched in 2011, the Adäka Cultural Festival’s mission is to develop and deliver a world-class, iconic festival that showcases, celebrates, and fosters the development of Yukon’s diverse and distinctive First Nations arts and culture. The festival is administered by the Yukon First Nations Culture and Tourism Association (YFNCT). YFNCT is a not-for-profit organization committed to growing, promoting and celebrating strong and sustainable Yukon First Nations arts, culture and tourism sectors.