'Beading is medicine': Intricate map connects Indigenous artists across Canada, U.S.
TORONTO -- This intricate map took months to put together, a project fuelled by pandemic boredom and a willingness from dozens of artists to come together and pour themselves into a millennia-old practice.
Since March 2020, Indigenous artists from across the U.S. and Canada have been using beading and stitching techniques to create a beaded patchwork of a map of provinces, territories and U.S. states which make up North America, or Turtle Island as it’s known to many Indigenous people.
People beaded their sections and sent in high-quality photos to CeeJay Johnson, a Dakota and Tlingit artist in Alaska, who with the help of a graphic artist, stiches the pieces together digitally.
“I was just looking for something that would connect people and give them a project to help get through the quarantine,” the project creator said in a phone call with CTVNews.ca.
But for many participants, sometimes spending weeks beading has also deepened their bond with their culture, their identity and their families.
“Beading has been a way of reconnecting myself to my ancestors,” said Lenore Augustine from Elsipogtog First Nation, who beaded a yellow sun on a blue outline of New Brunswick, with small fiddlehead plants to symbolize the Indigenous communities there.
“Different aspects of life come through to your beadwork,” the Mi’kmaq artist told CTVNews.ca in a video interview with several other artists.
On the map, Prince Edward Island featured the colours of an Indigenous medicine wheel. Amanda Laliberte, who was inspired by her late grandmother, beaded the official flowers of Saskatchewan and Yukon, the orange tiger lily and purple fireweed respectively, onto her two designs.
Joelle Charlie, a Gwich'in and Kaska Dena First Nations artist in Inuvik, N.W.T., reconnected with beading to stitch her own northern territory, which features a tan teepee on a sunset backdrop.
“I thought that it was only for a certain type of person that's really like an expert at it,” she said in a video interview. “But I kind of got the courage to start beading again [after] I was inspired by other beaders.”
Vancouver-based Cree artist Kyla Woodward, who beaded a pattern inspired by a terrain map of British Columbia, told CTVNews.ca over Facebook she loved the idea because she “felt a part of something bigger than myself.”
The final design of the map was voted on by the public online last summer and it’s been such a hit that organizers say it’s going to be featured in a Grade 8 social studies curriculum in Nova Scotia. And because so many submissions didn’t make the cut, next month, organizers plan on asking for submissions for the 2021 map.
The map has given many artists a sense of identity they didn’t have before.
“Working on this project gave me that little boost of confidence to embark on learning my language again and I can now introduce myself in Mi’kmaq,” Toronto-based Mi’kmaq artist Mel Compton, who beaded a swatch of green and coastal blues in the shape of K’taqamkuk (Newfoundland), said in an email.
Ashley McKenzie-Dion, a Métis artist in Manitoba who’s been learning about her own heritage recently, wasn’t told she was Indigenous until she was 21. She said helping to build the map has given her “a sense of community in a time when we all feel so alone.”
She tearfully recounted how her design was inspired by memories of her late father, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2018. “When I was a young girl, I was looking out the back window and saw the northern lights and I said to my dad, ‘I think there are aliens coming.”
So McKenzie-Dion used a starry night theme in her beading to commemorate the night her father explained what she was looking at -- with the polar bears underneath symbolizing her children she hopes to pass on beading techniques to.
FLOOD OF BEADWORK FROM CANADA, U.S.
Project creator Johnson, who’s behind Kooteen Creations which has been documenting the map’s progress, initially only wanted to fill in a map of the United States.
Using the hashtag, #BeadYourState, she called out for Indigenous artists to send in submissions of their beadwork designs of different states. But artists from Canada quickly jumped on the bandwagon and kicked off the #BeadYourProvince hashtag.
It soon became apparent that certain provinces and states were being doubled, tripled or quadrupled with submissions, so Johnson turned the project into more of a contest, where people would vote on their favourite design for a state, province or territory to make the final design.
But with no submissions for Nunavut, the Canadian map nearly didn’t come together. So the day before the final deadline in August, Cree Rena Laboucan from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta volunteered to tackle it and frantically began beading.
“I couldn't live with the fact that a whole territory of people would be left out and that all the work completed by other artists would not be showcased and appreciated,” Laboucan said in an email.
“My design was based on my research -- the polar bear and blue star from the territory crest, the woman carrying her baby wearing a sealskin coat, the hand drum and Inuk wording for Nunavut [all] to honour the Inuit people.”
Once the final map was settled on, it wasn’t long before people began asking for posters, shirts and mugs and hoodies, with even Taboo, a Black Eyed Peas band member and activist with Shoshone roots, asking for and eventually rocking one of the sweatshirts.
Demand became so high that Johnson started the non-profit Seven Allies to help deal with orders, with online traffic temporarily shutting the site down. Once the website is up again, the artists feel the profits should go back to the community.
“It seemed a little wrong to profit personally off of something that hundreds of artists collab-ed on,” Johnson said, noting that proceeds for the merchandise will go towards Indigenous beading programs in the U.S. and Canada focusing on elders, youth and rehabilitation. They’re still in the process of deciding which ones.
'BEADING IS MEDICINE'
The deep significance of so many people beading across North America is not lost on Johnson.
“Beading is medicine. I actually use it for therapy.”
Ashley Copage, a Mi’kmaq woman from Sipekne’katik First Nation who lives in Rines Creek, N.S., agreed. And she told CTVNews.ca in an email that “beading the design helped me process the grief I was feeling” after the mass shooting in the province last spring.
Inspired by the Nova Scotia Strong heart logo, Copage spent at least 12 hours beading a red symbol on white background.
Johnson explained that beading is a common way for many Indigenous folks to re-centre and refocus. Beading demands utmost concentration and a willingness to seek peace, she said.
“We're not supposed to bead when we're in a bad mood, mentally, physically, spiritually. We're told that we're not allowed to bead [because] whatever we're feeling goes into that beadwork and it goes on to that person wearing it.”
For more than a century of Canada’s history, Indigenous people were outright banned from making regalia, which regularly features intricate beadwork. And people can’t forget that, Fort McKay, Alta. artist Cree Didi Grandjambe told CTVNews.ca in an email.
“Projects like this are important as they keep the tradition of beading alive,” said the self-taught beader, who stitched wild roses, mountains, and a black oil drop for her Alberta design. Other artists, such as NunatuKavut beader Jennelle Doyle from Labrador, are similarly hopeful for the future.
“I can’t wait to see who else participates in the next versions of this,” she said. “I hope that youth see this project and see what is possible when we all come together.”