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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Spirit Beads

Indigenous peoples in the americas, especially north america, are famous for a whole range of artistic practices, and of those beadworking is very close to the most well-known. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that beaded garments, footwear, and equipment became a key source of income for many Indigenous women as they struggled to feed their families during massive disruptions to their ways of life and access to their traditional lands. In the case of the Northwest Métis, being a post-contact people, the need to develop identifiable artforms in a hurry so as to avoid competing directly with the established trade in beaded items by First Nations generally, not just their own kin, was especially urgent. This helped drive the adaptation of flower and leaf imagery into Northwest Métis beading practice, leading in short order to one of their nicknames among D/Lakota peoples, "the flower beadwork people." Of course, other Indigenous peoples didn't just sit around watching Northwest Métis branching outside of geometric designs either, and they developed their own palettes. Of those I am aware of, Anishinabeg beaders have taken their own path when it comes to bringing in flower and leaf imagery, and I have seen some of the Cree beadwork bringing in animal imagery brings a whole different sensibility yet again. Beading is also quite approachable for most of us, and we may even have had a small beading project in elementary school that may have left us with a wrong impression of it.

Some of the impressions europeans got of how Indigenous peoples viewed beads in northern north america were very strange. All too few of them sought to deepen their understanding or correct misconceptions like the ongoing insistence that for Indigenous peoples, wampum beads were money, which they emphatically were and are not. To europeans wampum was money, and that caused a great deal of trouble for everyone concerned. However, as already briefly explained in Wampum is Not Money, wampum beads are part of complex spiritual and knowledge transmission practices. They are used to record treaties and history, for example. When a person wears a string or more of wampum beads, they aren't just wearing something pleasing and impressive to look at. That article represents a tremendous amount of work to make and string together the beads, and then to earn the right to learn the information that the wampum beads record and share it. Even today, when newer tools and alternate materials mean wampum beads can be made more quickly, these factors have not changed.

Snippet from the beadwork style painting featured as the title image of artist Christi Belcourt's website, august 2020. Snippet from the beadwork style painting featured as the title image of artist Christi Belcourt's website, august 2020.
Snippet from the beadwork style painting featured as the title image of artist Christi Belcourt's website, august 2020.

One of the most striking studies I have read is one of an excavated Northwest Métis wintering site, at which fragments of blue and white china and a noticeable number of blue glass beads lost between the temporary floor boards were recovered. The excavators did not say much about this, beyond being understandably baffled what Indigenous people who travelled long distances on carts were doing lugging around fancy tea cups, which itself is unpacked a bit more in On The Importance of Tea. But let's look a bit closer at those blue beads, because the demand for blue beads among Indigenous peoples in northern north america was and indeed is still quite high. Blue might seem a counterintuitive choice, as opposed to red. But not if we consider things a bit more carefully from a position on the land. Yes, the sky is blue, and so indeed to the human eye is water, especially deep water, and water in certain types of ice. Powerful beings live in major water bodies, and many First Nations record encounters with water bodies indicating they serve as portals between worlds in more ways than one. To pick one example, I have read transcribed versions of Blackfoot accounts of how when the bison left the plains, they left through a specific lake. It is an eerie story. We should also consider the spiritually potent materials that come from beings that live in water, starting with the molluscs whose shells are cut into wampum, and still others who provide mother of pearl for earrings and buttons or half shells for wonderful smudging bowls. Blue is also a surprisingly fugitive colour, so much so that in the ancient middle east trading networks moved various blue pigments and stones over vast regions, and some of the earliest chemical research was driven by a desire to create cheap and effective imitations. If we think again to the land, we can consider how few blue or blue-purple flowers there are, and how those flowers can mark a dangerous form of an otherwise safe and edible plant or tuber. The blue flower is a key feature differentiating death camus from its edible cousin, as Lekwungen-speaking peoples have known for millennia.

Quite apart from demand for specific colours or kinds of beads, Indigenous artists have continued to do remarkable work either with beads or inspired by them. Among the most famous of those inspired by beadwork is Christi Belcourt, whose work is represented by the first photograph illustrating this thoughtpiece. She is a hardworking Michif (also referred to here as Northwest Métis) artist whose family hales from Manitou Sakhigan in what is currently called the province of alberta, and grew up in ontario. Her primary medium is paint, including a powerful series of works done with dots of paint reminiscent of beads, most often on a black background and occasionally on red or off-white. She includes a wonderful sampling of photographs of these works on her website. Belcourt has also written a book on beading and its history in Indigenous communities, Beadwork: First Peoples' Beading History and Techniques. She continues to integrate bead-like elements in her paintings, including in her currently touring series, "UPRISING: The Power of Mother Earth" and many of the works purchased and displayed by the Gabriel Dumont Institute.

Among artists doing extraordinary work with beads, pressing the medium to its further limits is Margaret Nazon of Tiisgehtchic in what is currently referred to in english as the northwest territories. Like many women of her generation, she learnt beading techniques both from female relatives and in residential school. Besides learning how to sew beads smoothly and evenly on cloth and moosehide, both trickier tasks than they might sound to those who haven't had an opportunity to try it, Nazon also received some definite strictures about how to combine colours and represent certain things. A an august feature article on her work notes, this strictness is not necessarily arbitrary or about refusing to change. "Their rigour may have stemmed from the rules that apply when living and travelling in nature: 'When you're out on the land,” says Nazon, 'you've got to follow tradition, otherwise you could get lost, you could starve, something could happen.'" Still, that didn't mean that there was no way to do differently where it did not introduce danger or cause other problems. Nazon explained that originally she didn't care for beading very much precisely because she was following the same sorts of patterns as other beaders. What changed her perspective and restored her interest was a happy accident.

Beaded image of the Milky Way by Tiisgehtchic artist Margaret Nazon. Original image from the glenbow museum, this version quoted from brainpickings article *The Stunning Astronomical Beadwork of Native Artist Margaret Nazon* dated 8 october 2019. Beaded image of the Milky Way by Tiisgehtchic artist Margaret Nazon. Original image from the glenbow museum, this version quoted from brainpickings article *The Stunning Astronomical Beadwork of Native Artist Margaret Nazon* dated 8 october 2019.
Beaded image of the Milky Way by Tiisgehtchic artist Margaret Nazon. Original image from the glenbow museum, this version quoted from brainpickings article The Stunning Astronomical Beadwork of Native Artist Margaret Nazon dated 8 october 2019.

One day her partner Bob Mumford showed her some recent photographs from the Hubble space telescope, and entirely different possibilities became visible alongside the nebulae and stars. From there she began combining multiple types of beads, found objects, and items such as fish vertebrae and sections of bone to create striking works on black backgrounds. In an interview with staff at the glenbow museum in calgary, which curates a collection of her works, she described her beading style. "I can bead, but that was not my first choice for embellishment, I found it too tedious. Then I discovered 'the cosmos' and knew instantly that my kind of beading was more suitable for abstract images. I can use any type and size of bead; any type of beading technique in one project and that's what draws people to my work, it has the 3D effect." Like Belcourt, Nazon teaches many students and is a powerful mentor for young Indigenous artists, demonstrating how it is possible to develop traditional techniques in striking and unique ways, without losing contact with the ancestors who passed the techniques down.

All this said, art galleries and museums are hardly the only places it is possible to see beadwork by Indigenous artists in person. Considerably more may be seen on the powwow circuit, where dancer's regalia may serve as important places to apply and display extraordinary beadwork. Not all of us have handled beadwork ourselves, and so it may not be evident that dancers make important trade offs when they decide to embellish their regalia with beads beyond their headbands and moccasins. Panels of beadwork are heavy, and dancers will dance for literally hours while wearing such panels incorporated into their regalia. While it is possible to buy what is labelled "powwow regalia" from a range of online vendors, this is not a typical practice. More often regalia is handed down in families and made by the dancer and their family members. When thieves make off with a dancer's regalia, they are not just interfering with articles used in ceremony and carrying powerful spiritual symbols.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Monday, January 01, 2024 01:26:41