How beading lessons from her son reconnected a residential school survivor to her culture

·5 min read

A special kind of cold is needed for mukluks. The traditional Anishinaabe footwear crafted out of moose hide with a fleece lining and adorned with coloured glass beads and rabbit or beaver fur doesn’t wear well in mild, wet winter weather, but rather when it’s cold and dry.

That’s something Alley Yapput, an Anishinaabe Two Spirit artist, learned growing up with his grandmother Clara Yapput during the 1970s and 1980s in Nakina, Ont., about 300 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. His grandmother was known in the area for her beadwork and other crafts, and a young Alley kept close watch.

Decades later, Alley is sharing his teachings with his mother Madeline, who in her 60s has recently learned how to bead and make moccasins like her own mother used to. Unlike her son, however, she didn’t grow up learning from her parents.

Clara Yapput, who was born Christmas Day, 1918, and was from Aroland First Nation, an Ojibway community not far from Nakina, was a master in the craft of beading and sewing items such as mukluks, moccasins and mittens. She also made miniature snowshoes, cradles and birch-bark baskets with willow branches.

Clara and her husband Lloyd, a Cree man born along the shores of the Albany River next to James Bay, raised their family in Aroland and Nakina. An active couple, they spent summers working as hunting and fishing guides or building cabins for local tourist outfitters.

Clara and Lloyd had 10 children and spoke Cree and Ojibway at home, where Madeline and her siblings also learned to speak Ojibway fluently. In 1957, when Madeline was five years old, she was sent to residential school more than 800 kilometres away in the Kenora, Ont., area. She would spend the next several years in the residential school system, returning home to her family for the summers.

“It’s not a happy place where I went,” she says about her experience in the government and church-run schools she attended. “I lost a lot of my language and culture.”

Madeline says she would have learned the careful craftmanship of handmade items such as moccasins and miniature snowshoes from her mother if she had stayed home. Instead, she says, such teachings “just all went away.”

As a teenager, Madeline returned home to her family in Nakina and had Alley, the first of three children. She let her parents raise Alley, a customary practice among Anishinaabe families in the north.

Madeline says her son had a good upbringing with her parents, picking up the Ojibway language and syllabics.

“I was very happy that he learned a lot of culture from my mother,” she says.

Her mother continued to bead until she could no longer see because of cataracts. Clara passed away in 2001 at age 83.

Alley says he spent a lot of time by his grandmother’s side, learning and observing.

Eventually, like his mother, Alley was also sent away to school. In Grade 9, he moved to Sioux Lookout, where he lived with a non-Indigenous family who didn’t understand the Ojibway language.

“You lose that connection,” he says.

Armed with his grandmother’s traditional sewing and beading skills (“It’s all in my head – a lot of memory in there,” he says), Alley got into the “moccasin game” about 15 years ago while living in Winnipeg, sewing moccasins part-time for an Indigenous company while continuing his own beadwork and sewing on the side.

He moved back to Thunder Bay more than three years ago, shortly after his aunt died of cancer, wanting to ensure his mother wasn’t alone without any family.

Visiting his mother at least once a week, Alley would often bring his sewing and beadwork with him and encouraged his mother to give it a try. She started off with small items, beading poppies and Christmas pins.

When Alley was hired by an organization to teach a moccasin-making workshop for residential school survivors, Madeline joined in and made her first pair of moccasins.

“She’s a really quick learner,” Alley says.

Sharing his mother’s work on his Facebook page, Madeline started to get requests for her items, and hasn’t stopped taking orders – or learning – since.

One of the duo’s latest projects was a matching pair of beaded gauntlet mittens for Madeline and her partner – a first for Madeline, who noted it was a challenging project, particularly fashioning the mitts’ thumb. It took Madeline and Alley about two weeks to complete both pairs.

At times, the handiwork can be a delicate, tedious process of stitching tiny seed beads onto leather or other material, using one or two threaded needles.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating what you bead – your thread doesn’t go right, [so] I put it away and relax,” Madeline says with a laugh.

Crafting together has become a way for mother and son to stay close, particularly after the death of Alley’s youngest sister last summer.

As a single person, he’s thankful he can still visit his mom in her home, where she lives with her partner, under the current pandemic restrictions. Madeline works on custom orders from her living room, sitting in her recliner with a tray of beads in her lap and her dog Jasper, a small Shih Tzu-cross, close by. Alley sits on the couch, where he works on mukluks featuring a more intricate (and contemporary) design – Baby Yoda.

When asked how it makes her feel that people want to buy her work, Madeline lights up.

“Oh my God, my heart just bursts,” she says.

She’s even received a custom order from as far away as New York – appropriately enough, it was for a matching set of moccasins for a mother and child.

Willow Fiddler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Globe and Mail