Rivers and waterways

BEADING

 

I can’t remember where I learned to sew or who taught me; I like to think it was my grandmother. It wasn’t my mother; I have never seen her sew. Knitting is her craft; she is a mad knitter. When I was a kid I loved watching her hands and fingers shape the fibers, flawlessly shifting from knit to pearl, one effortless gesture. Moving the needles along without looking, it was an entirely intuitive process for her. My grandmother always sewed, she had a sewing room I loved to rummage through. It was consistently filled with half completed projects, piles of pajama pants. She had an obsession with buying pajamas for her grandchildren. If you walked into her sewing room you would think she had thirty grandchildren, when she only had thirteen and most of them lived out of the province.

Beading is a similar process to hand stitching. It is a long arduous process; picking up each bead, sewing it through, making sure the thread does not tangle; if it does it is another three minutes of untangling, getting frustrated, taking a break, then returning ten minutes later with a hot tea, ready to tackle it all over again. It is a practice of patience. Stitching every second bead, so the stitch is secure and the beads position is true to form. I spent seven hours beading, sewing and fastening, securing and thinking. The first hundred hours were spent fussing with my finger position, trying to find the best way to hold the fabric so I could stitch along the drawn guiding line. When finished I stood back. I had completed the test piece, which amounts to one foot of the planned river. I would not use it in the final piece. It was made to test the synthetic felt material I was using from the base. The test piece allows me to calculate how many hours it will take me to complete the full thirty-foot beaded river. Thirty feet at seven hours a foot equals two hundred and ten hours, plus extra because the measurements do not count for the meandering of the river. Not a daunting task at all!

I can’t find any physical data that tells me my ancestors beaded, but through conducting research on Métis and Cree art practices I imagine my ancestors would have performed decorative tasks such as quillwork and embroidery. Indigenous people of the plains were nomadic following the migration of the buffalo. For this reason art was integrated into their belongings, garments were embellished with quill, animal fibers, feathers, and pigment; tipis, saddle bags and pads, enfant carriers and other everyday objects were embellished with stories of the land, important events, animals that sustained their life, and significant landmarks were pictured on their belongs as a way to honour the Creators generosity. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century trade between European settlers and Indigenous nations started to occur. Imported beads were integrated with porcupine quills, which were extremely labour intensive from harvesting, to cleaning, to application[1]. Quills were seen as symbolic placeholders for the land as they were harvested from the porcupine and dyed with natural pigments from local plants. Garments and objects elaborately decorated with quills were sacred and used during protocol and ceremony. When beads starting taking the place of quills they became “floating signifiers for the land, narrative traditions, and ceremony, but also for how colonial presence cross-pollinates to create meaning.” [2]

I imagine these teaching being disrupted by the number of colonial structures and systems imposed on Indigenous peoples of the plains, as well as across the continent. Sharing practices, passed down from generation to generation were disrupted by the ceremonial ban, the pass system, residential schools, removal of children from their homes during the 60s scoop, which is still a government practice today, and relocation and resource exploitation. The ceremonial ban was a government ban that required Indigenous peoples to seek permission from Indian agents and other government officials to perform and practice ceremony this included dancing, singing and ceremonial protocol that were performed in regalia which were ornately decorated with embroidery, beading, ribbons and quills. This ban was instilled from the late 19th century to 1951. Through all this Indigenous peoples have resisted and many Indigenous art forms still exist today due to the will of the people to continue their ways of passing on knowledge. Indigenous researchers, artists, scholars, and educators have conducted in-depth research to understand and revive artistic practices and making methodologies to activate resurgence within Indigenous communities, both rural and urban[3].

Although I have never witnessed family members beading or have been formally taught, I felt an instant connection to the medium and process from the first secured stitch. I have always loved arduous, repetitive, and laborious tasks; this is reflected in past projects (Botany Colonized, 150). I felt an instant balance of curiosity and excitement with the medium. Wondering how I could push its classic applications within a contemporary conceptual art form and expand the meaning of beading for myself and the viewer.

In the Master of Fine Art group show this year, at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, I showed two pieces: 150 and An Identity Metaphor. Both projects are made of loomed beadings. 150 is a project I completed for Nocturne’s 2017 Vanish themed art at night event. I made one hundred and fifty loomed and unfinished ‘bracelets’, each depicting a number associated with an event in Indigenous history within the time of confederation (1867-2017). With 2017 being a celebratory year for Canada, I wanted to bring awareness to the fact that not everyone in this country was celebrating. Along with the one hundred and fifty unfinished bracelets there was a beaded QR code which took the viewer to a website that acted as a decoder for the piece. Viewers were then able to walk away with the information they needed to fully engage in the piece, as well as to continue reading through the source material cited at the end of each ‘event definition’. I also wanted viewers to engage in the conversation so I made postcards of two of the beaded numbers, 15, speaking to the inadequate transportation in Northern Communities[4], and 156, speaking to the water advisories affecting 110 First Nation Communities (as of Fall 2016)[5], which I felt were both incredibly important to modern day living. People who took the cards were encouraged to scan the barcode on the postcard and participate in an online survey asking, “ If you had to choose between having clean water or safe transportation which would you choose?”[6]

The process of making this work was arduous, laborious and mind numbingly repetitive. At the beginning of this project I created a system. I would research ten numbers, fact check them, write them up in an excel document, and then bead them. I created a standard size for each bracelet. It was important for me that they were structured in appearance; they had to have enough beads in the row for the greatest number and the smallest number. I decided forty-five was the perfect amount of rows for the design I wanted to make. I beaded these numbers for two months. When I started a bracelet took me 45 minutes, by the end of the two-month period I managed to shave, on average of 5 minutes off; on a good day I would finish a bracelet within 37 minutes. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson speaks of procuring our bodies in the process of building Indigenous knowledge. She states,

“This tells us that in order to access knowledge from a Nishnaabeg perspective, we have to engage our entire bodies: our physical beings, emotional self, our spiritual energy and our intellect. Our methodologies, our lifeways must reflect those components of our being and the integration of those four components into a whole. This gives rise to our “research methodologies,” our ways of knowing, our processes for living in the world.”[7] (italics added)

It became second nature to me; I could almost watch television while doing it. It became an embodied practice, the designs came naturally to me, I knew when the bracelet was done before having to count the rows and double check that there were forty-five. This process was embedded into my body, into my movements. No longer was thought given to the construction of it, my body just knew.

The second piece in the group MFA show was An Identity Metaphor. This was my first time creating with video. I was thinking through using QR codes to transmit information to the viewer; how I could take this capitalist and cooperate tool and use it for my own message, one that promoted alternative histories, narratives and artistic thought. The installation of the piece was simple. It consisted of a shelf with a reflective material that held a disassembled beaded QR code. The reflective material mirrored the QR code attached to the wall-mounted shelf. The material connection of the beaded QR code on the wall and the pile of beads and string on the shelf led viewers to connect the two. When looking from the correct angle viewers would see the QR code on the wall reflected in the pile of beads on the shelf. Once the QR code was scanned viewers were led to an online video. The video started with an undoing of the QR code, cut from the sides and pulled apart. Once the entire code was unraveled it was then re-beaded. I was interested in making a video that was self-reflective, both of the piece itself but also of myself as the maker. I wanted to speak to the making of the beaded object but also of the unraveling and destruction of it. I view this piece as a metaphor for building an identity, taking the pieces you already have, cutting it up, taking out the bits that are no longer needed, rearranging them and beading them back together.

I knew I wanted to create a thesis that explored identity, place, allyship, kinship, narrative and histories through making. My thesis research question is: can you build a sense of belonging through an artistic practice and research?  I embarked on a project that was heavily situated within a practice-based research model. My primary research came from hours upon hours of beading, thinking and meditating on the space I was creating while beading. I am activating Miskâsown, a Cree word meaning ‘to go inside yourself to find your own belonging,’ by looking inside myself and imagining what this practice has to offer me[8]. I am consciously situating myself in my practice so I can understand the full scope of what I am trying to do and say, how my identity shapes the objects I make and how those objects will be interpreted because of who I am[9]. How can endless hours of beading and thinking amount to synthesizing a connection? How can I think and make myself into a sense of belonging? I am hoping to articulate a theory, to activate what bell hook’s calls theorizing as liberatory practice, that connects the practice of making to a sense of connection. “This ‘lived’ experience of critical thinking, of reflection and analysis, became a place where I worked at explaining the hurt and making it go away. Fundamentally, I learned from this experience that theory could be a healing place.” [10] I am also extremely inspired by the words of Bonnie Devine who said, “In my work sewing functions as an act of claiming memory…. Sewing creates a mark, a careful line, a row of hyphens, which though tentative and vulnerable, yet thereafter attaches, contains and demarks the place where I have been and connects it to the place where I am going.”[11] This act of claiming memory is what I set out to do in my thesis project. It was a way for me to sit down, bead, reflect, claim memory and actively engage in resurgence.

I began this journey by outlining a system to follow in my practice, a system where I will produce three different pieces. I chose to bead three rivers. Rivers are the earth’s blood streams, they hold significant importance to all life forms, and they were integral to making of the Métis people[12]; I wanted to honour them for the work they do. The first river I beaded was the Heart River in Alberta, it is to commemorate and honour my ancestors from that area. The second river, the Fraser River in British Columbia, is beaded to address my personal history and memories along the river. The third river, Shubenacadie River in Nova Scotia, is an activist/community project, beaded in the company and guidance of the water protectors of the Stop Alton Gas group, their allies, and other members of the community who wish to be involved. This community-based project stands in solidarity with water protectors and the Stop Alton Gas group; who are actively occupying space along the Shubenacadie River to protest the destruction of the rivers’ ecosystem by the environmental threat Alton Gas poses. This beading project is an honouring of the river space and the rivers life system. Many hands join together and bead the space of the river, culminating in a forty-toot beading of the Shubenacadie River. The intention of this project is for participants, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to come together and collectively honour the space of the Shubenacadie River. This is an exercise in building treaty relations between settler and Indigenous nations and humans to mother earth. Group activities, such as this, foster storytelling, sharing, engagement, and collective making activating Indigenous research methodologies[13]. This approach is designed to assist with the group’s purpose in bringing awareness to the cause by involving the NSCAD and Nova Scotian communities, along with others across the country in the making of this river. When the project is complete I will donate the beaded canvases to the Stop Alton Gas group to do as they please, hopefully to generate funds for the groups continued resistance. This three-part approach is designed to help me build a knowledge system of beading, an embodied knowledge and a community connection with beading and activism at the center.

By picking up the needle I am engaging and connecting to ancestors who most likely did the same three or four generations ago. I am connecting with the land and practices of my ancestors. I am also engaging in an act of resistance as Nadia Myre said, “I really do see beading as an act of silent resistance.” And illustrated through Amy Malbeuf’s art piece titled Jimmie Durham 1974, 2014 in which Malbeuf beads Durham’s quote, “An Indian who sits and does beadwork or conducts beadwork classes, or trades beadwork when he or she should be on the front line with a gun, or organizing his or her community, is performing a counter-revolutionary act.” By beading this piece she is standing in opposition from Durham’s statement, beading can be used as a form of resistance and resurgence, and as Malbeuf states, “I do think beadwork, or things such as beadwork and things that hold traditional value, are tools and weapons for change for a younger generation.”[14] By picking up the needle I am activating a practice that was lost to my relations before me but I am activating the practice for my relations to come. By learning beading practices I am refusing the colonial system that imposed the rules and regulations that made my ancestors give up the practice. Making work from beading ties me to my ancestors.

The Internet is a magical place that can be filled with knowledge sharing and community building. Although none of my family members bead, or perform the type of beading I was interested in learning, I was able to learn through YouTube videos. I was also able to experience the passion beaders have for their craft through online writings (Robertson, Webb-Campbell) and listen to Indigenous scholar Sherry Farrel Racette speak about contemporary beaders, the history and importance of the practice. I was able to learn and hone this craft by the sharing of others. Robertson states, “Sharing patterns and ideas, support, and community remain at the heart of beaded art practices.” Indigenous people know that these skills need to be passed on, so they have used the Internet to share these knowledges. I am passing on this notion by publishing my thesis online and by using social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to advertise the beading circles and workshops. People from other provinces are encouraged to get in touch so I can mail them a kit and begin a conversation. Through this project I hope to continue those practices of sharing and visiting that have been explored in many other artists works such as Nadian Myre's Scare Project and Dylan Miner's The Edlers Say We Don't Visit Anymore.

 

 

[1] “Pound beads (sold by the pound), and the smaller seed beads moved into the decorative space occupied by porcupine quill embroidery, not replacing it, but sharing space.” (Racette, 2009)

[2] Robertson, Carmen. Land and Beaded Identity.

[3] Christi Belcourt’s Onaman Collective and Sherry Farrell Racette’s research and writings on beading practices, among with many other Indigenous artists who continue to pass on their knowledge to younger generations.

[4] "In her thesis on missing and murdered Indigenous women and the Canadian justice system, researcher Maryanne Pearce underlines the frightening connection between the two (adequate and regular public transportation in the isolated mountainous region along Highway 16 and 5); the dearth of public transportation makes it impossible for young Indigenous people in the region (over 15 percent of B.C.'s northern residents are Indigenous) to find work: their low incomes keep them from owning a car; without a car, they have to hitchhike and put themselves in harm's way."

Walter, Emmanuelle. Stolen Sisters: an Inquiry into Feminicide in Canada. Harper Collins Books, 2015. pg.47

[5] According to David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians, as of Fall 2016, there are 156 drinking water advisories affecting 110 First Nations communities.

Minsky, Amy. “First Nations ‘Living in Third World Conditions’ as Communities Endure Water Advisories.” Global News

[6] https://carrie155.typeform.com/to/FW2uMP

[7] Simpson, Leanne. Dancing on our turtles back: stories of Nishnaabeg re-creation, resurgence and a new emergence. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Pub. 2015:17.

[8] “Indigenous re-search is often guided by the knowledge found within. Aboriginal epistemology (the ways of knowing our reality) honours our inner being as the place where Spirit lives, our dreams reside and our heart beats. Indigenous peoples have processes in place to tap into this inner space and to make the unknown – known (Ermine 1995).” (Absolon 2011)

[9] Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies. 2011.

[10] Hooks, Bell. “Theory as Liberatory Practice.” Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, Routledge, 1994, pp. 59–75.

[11] Fowler, Cynthia. “Materiality and Collective Experience: Sewing as Artistic Practice in Works by Marie Watt, Nadia Myre, and Bonnie Devine. American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Summer 2010). Pp. 344-364.

[12] Rivers were the highways for Indigenous peoples, trading across great distances was possible because of the rivers systems. This was brought to my attention through a conversation with my academic advisor Carla Taunton and reiterated in a conversation with Amy Malbeuf, a Métis artist from Lac La Biche.

[13] See Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Margaret Kovach, and Kathleen Absolon.

[14] Sandles, Leah. “Amy Malbeuf Q&A” . https://canadianart.ca/features/amy-malbeuf-qa-references-self/

THE LABOUR OF BEADING

 

my hands cramp
and my fingers bleed

this work is an honouring

 

I feel the day in my bones
the weight of hours sitting

this act is for the river

 

when I get up to stretch
and almost collapse

this act is for my ancestors

 

the weight of my head growing heavier
my eyes straining, burning and blurry

this work is about belonging

 

Through each bead
Through each warp and weft
I feel a little bit better
a little bit more connected
a little less weight

 

 

THOUGHTS I HAVE HAD WHILE BEADING

 

I am such a good little Indian girl. Reconnecting with my ancestors. Learning how to bead. I am sure my ancestors beaded. Most likely the practice was lost because of the ceremonial ban.

 

Jamie was right. There is no such thing as fast beading. This is taking forever. (20:10)

 

I hate this project. I wonder if I cut off the last four or five feet if anyone will notice? Jake will totally rat me out…

 

I am such a fraud. I am only doing to so I can adopt a ‘traditional’ medium. I am not authentic, what ever that means. I am not doing this for the right reasons. Everyone is going to see through this transparent act.

 

no thought to concept- no thought to what i am making- an honest depiction of the making process. The simplicity of being by making- making something tactile

 

Waiting for my fingers to remember, to know where to go without having to think, is fucking infuriating. I started new stitch today- two threads, two needles; one holds the beads in line the other sews them in. The stitch is straighter, less buckling but my fingers are fumbling, like they are a hundred times bigger, or numb and I can’t control them. I want to yell at them, make them get in line, like little solders. ‘No NOT there! THERE! What are YOU Doing?!’

 

My hands are cramping, my back is aching, and my eyes are tired. I am having doubts about being able to finish this project. The anxiety is overwhelming.

 

This is the worst project I have ever committed to.

 

I should quit art and start a dog walking company. (This was inspired by the Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby talk)

 

I think this practice is making me shorter. I should take up yoga.