Beyond Beads

·7 min read

Beading helps share knowledge, good laughs, and support for each other through hard times. That’s why beading is important to me, as both an art, and community-centred experience.”

So explains Klahoose and Tla’amin Nation member Emily White, who’s contemporary beading designs are pushing the boundaries of the traditional art form (see left). The 24-year-old Tla’amin Nation intergovernmental policy and fiscal analyst learned to bead in 2018 from the Elders in Residence at the University of Victoria – over many lunchtimes as she was completing her degree in Indigenous Studies and ethics. She especially credits Métis Elder Barb Hulme.

Since then, Emily has experimented with beading pieces from earrings to bolo ties, developing her own unique style – with the help of online beading communities during COVID.

“There is an amazing community of online beaders that support and uplift each other, it’s very special to be a part of. Beading is a medicine, community-based, full of teachings, and an art.”

Indigenous beadwork is newly attracting attention from Canada’s fine arts establishment. This summer, Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery has launched Beaded Nostalgia, featuring more than 50 contemporary Indigenous artists; it’s a “celebration of how beadwork is being reshaped and re-imagined.” It’s on until October. Similarly, Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery is hosting Radical Stitch this summer – North America’s largest ever art exhibit featuring Indigenous beading. The gallery’s CEO John G. Hampton says it is “one of our generation’s most exciting movements in contemporary art.”

However, Indigenous beading has been popular in Canada and all of North America for a very long time. It was popular even before contact with early settlers was made. Back then, beading was done with shells, porcupine quills, bones, and small stones.

When settlers did arrive in Canada, the trading began. In exchange for food, furs, or simply just given as a gift, glass beads of many shapes and colours were given to Indigenous peoples by the European settlers. This small exchange allowed a whole new art culture to bloom.

Indigenous artists created patterns, flower designs, and thousands of other styles. Soon enough, bracelets and headbands turned into beaded chest plates and moccasins. Beaded regalia was introduced for trading and in ceremonies, becoming new traditions.

North American Indigenous cultures aren’t alone in their love of beads. Glass beads were first made by Egyptians more than 3,000 years ago, and the technology spread across Africa, Asia and Europe, where each region’s beads look different, and are used in designs and regalia unique to each culture.

By the 1800s, glass beads from Russia and elsewhere made their way to qathet, and Indigenous artists adapted them alongside their Tla’amin-made beads.

While beading is traditionally taught by Matriarchs or mothers, several Indigenous qathet beaders have learned to bead through Elders, sisters, friends, teachers, reading books, watching videos, and through the massive online beading community.

Métis-Cree beading artist Heather Doherty learned on her own, mostly. She uses the traditional flat-stitch beading style to create pins, to medicine bags and traditional clothing applique.

“I bead as a way to connect with my ancestors, as well as to be creative and relax,” says Heather.

“I started beading as a teen, but back then it wasn’t in a cultural way, it was just for fun. However, I had stopped beading for a while and just got back into it about four years ago.”

Heather reconnected to beading as an adult after finding out it was in her family and that’s what got her back into it – more seriously this time.

“I am self-taught with some help from my friends who also bead. I used books, and I referenced photos I had from my Great-Aunt’s beading patterns,” Heather says.

“It is a way for me to take back something that was taken away from my family. For me, it’s like a blood memory, when I bead it feels right and it helps me feel that ancestral connection.”

Saphire Mitchell, 12, the younger sister of Emily, first learned to loom-bead at James Thompson, where she was taught by Indigenous education coordinator Gail Blaney.

“Around two or three years ago, my sister taught me how to bead earrings and necklaces.

“I had always watched my sister bead and she had tried to teach me before, but I kept getting very frustrated,” says Saphire. “I started to look at beading as a hobby. A hobby isn’t something that has to be done, but something I chose to do in my spare time, and now I love it.

“For standard earrings, it usually takes me about two and a half hours or more to bead. Hoops are a bit smaller so it would take me around an hour or an hour and a half to create.”

Emily says that beading is also a way to show Indigenous work in everyday life. Emily’s favourite piece she’s created is a pair of earrings – currently still being worked on.

“sxway xway is inspired by a petroglyph located in Klahoose Territory, and it depicts the image of a Coast Salish Mask Dancer, and is a piece that I really love. Another is the p̓oho (Raven) a bolo tie I made for a friend.”

Emily says that sxway xway has so far taken her about 35 hours of work and has 3,144 beads with around 40 metres of thread.

Saphire says that while right now she is selling her work through her Instagram account, she hopes to one day be able to sell at a store like Thick.

Some of Saphire’s favourite work includes a series of Pride earrings she made for a giveaway in June as well as a pair of earrings Saphire gifted to her mom for Mother’s Day.

“I also had a school marketing project where I made a pair of earrings and actually got to sell them in-person at school, it was really cool.”

Many Indigenous beaders sell their work at gift shops or through social media pages such as Instagram and Facebook, where sales can be international and beadwork from Canada can be sold or traded to someone in Europe, America, or anywhere else in the world. However, other Indigenous beaders prefer the traditional practice of gifting their beadwork instead of selling it. Others, such as Emily and Saphire, do both; they focus on gifting, but also sell their beadwork.

Heather does not sell, but gifts beadwork to family and friends, which is also showcased on her Instagram page @bent_needlez.

“I can’t pick a favourite piece I’ve beaded. I put a lot of love into everything I create,” says Heather.

“I am working another job, but my beadwork can take anywhere from one to two weeks, to three to four months, it really depends on the size of the project.”

Heather says beading is a significant form of storytelling and sharing knowledge.

“It’s amazing to see people finding ways to reconnect with their culture. Beadwork is one of those ways. There are beadwork artists all across Turtle Island (North America) and we are connecting and supporting each other,” says Heather. “I am proud to be able to share my work with the wider community and to bring this art form back into the light.”

Saphire finds beading to be very calming and helps her connect to her culture. “Beading helps me recharge, I really enjoy it now and it’s really nice having my sister teach me things like that. It helps us bond and gives us time to connect. And now I get to teach my mom!”

Abby Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, qathet Living

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