A decision made 25 years ago to create employment on the Peigan Nation has resulted in the First Nations' name becoming synonymous with quality craftsmanship.
"As long as I can remember, there's always been a Peigan Crafts," said Waylon Yellow Horn, who recently began his position as manager for the band-owned company.
The chief and council of the day created Peigan Crafts Ltd. as a means to combat high unemployment on the reserve and to promote craftsmanship.
"From those humble beginnings it grew to what it is now," said Yellow Horn.
At its height in the mid-1980s, Peigan Crafts employed more than 60 full-time people, running three full production lines, producing 350 to 400 moccasins, mukluks, and mittens per day, and stocking a number of department stores, including the Bay.
For about five years, the operation of Peigan Crafts included Peigan Garments, which produced blue jeans and coveralls. But that arm closed its doors in the late 1980s.
Yellow Horn recalled that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada was so impressed with the market that Peigan Crafts had cornered and the skills it offered its members that the department helped start three other similar operations in Western Canada.
"It flooded the market," said Yellow Horn. "Our last major competitor closed last fall and only this Peigan Crafts has weathered the storm."
But weathering the storm has meant a severe reduction in full-time employees, markets and products produced.
Presently Peigan Crafts employs 11 people, with only one production line. Last year, the company had to turn down an order from Hong Kong for 10,000 moccasins.
"They wanted it in three weeks and given that amount of time, we couldn't meet the order," said Yellow Horn.
The company has 30 to 50 different band members involved doing beadwork.
"Each and everyone of our moccasins are unique in their beadwork. That's what sets us apart from the rest of the companies that produce moccasins."
Most product is done in cow leather, but sheep leather and moose hide are also popular. Leather, which is supplied from Ontario, can be dyed any color and while teal and purple moccasins have a market, it's still the traditional brown, grey and black that are the top sellers.
This year, to mark the 25th anniversary, special edition gold moccasins have been made available through special order.
In the winter, when orders increase, a second production line is put into operation. But using older equipment often means breakdowns and lost time.
It's with that in mind that Yellow Horn has approached INAC in hopes that the federal department will match band dollars and allow Peigan Crafts to update its equipment and expand its operations.
While the Peigan Nation has agreed to contribute its equity portion, Peigan Crafts needs INAC's commitment before it can go to the bank for the rest of the financing.
For the marketing plan, Yellow Horn is hoping to access the services of the Canadian Executive Service Organization(CESO), which comprises retired professionals who do volunteer work with Third World countries and First Nations.
Peigan Crafts has a steady market in Alberta and British Columbia. Some product is shipped to Germany and Japan.
"The major markets for any consumer goods are Ontario and Quebec. We have no sales representation in Ontario or Quebec," said Yellow Horn. "Overseas, we have no representative to do aggressive marketing."
If the markets can be established, Yellow Horn has no doubt that Peigan Crafts can succeed in the numbers it once did.
"Our employees, they're artists when it comes right down to it," he said. "It's a piece of art-and it's also a shoe."