The personal ornaments of the Anishinaabe, also known as the Ojibway, vary from those of mainstream society. They differ greatly in their inclusion of natural, earth-bound materials including hide, glass beads and porcupine quills. More importantly, while mainstream jewelry often emphasizes material wealth and flexing, Indigenous pieces are a celebration of the jewelry maker’s personal development, an acknowledgment of generations past, and are a way to honour ancestral practices.
When asked how she received knowledge, Nicole Richmond, an Anishinaabe lawyer and beadworker said, “I started beading when I was a little girl in the context of pow wow dancing. I took a break when I went away to university…after having recurring dreams of watching a pow wow procession, I started getting back into it. Indigenous knowledge is transmitted horizontally, meaning you don’t really get the teaching (directly). You sit and watch and learn. I would sit and watch and learn from my auntie Caroline.”
Similarly, Quill Christie-Peters, the founder of The Indigenous Youth Residency Program reflects: “In my family the way that we’re taught things is always related to the self and the individual, tapping into what’s already inside and sitting beside family members that support you that way.”
Sometimes this knowledge is received in a more formal setting. Eabametoong’s Lucille Atlookan, founder of Neechee Studio, learned how to use moose hair from an elder during a beadwork symposium in Toronto. In contrast, Richmond describes how she acquired her desire and motivation to create.
“It’s a feeling in your heart, it’s not a mental thing, it’s a spiritual process running through your body,” says Richmond.
While her focus is often on the intangible, Richmond also cites a more specific technical practice.
“There is a teaching about having one misplaced bead. The purpose of the misplaced bead is to symbolize that even if we want to be creators, we will not be perfect like The Creator.”
Like the skillful practice of stringing together beads, the process of reflecting and creating meaning unifies many Indigenous artists.
“For me it has a lot to do with self-love and just having patience with myself. I love the slowness of beading and it requires you to sit in stillness for hours and hours thinking about who we are and where we come from. This makes beadwork important to me,” says Christie-Peters.
While so much time is spent creating each piece using materials rooted in tradition, do Anishinaabek jewelry makers identify as traditional artists? Richmond, Christie-Peters, and Atlookan all say no.
“Because we had this colonial interruption, where our traditions were taken from us, we hang onto what we think is traditional. I heard Eddie Benton Benai say one time that Ojibway People are contemporary people, and my work reflects that idea,” says Richmond.
Christie-Peters has a similar perspective.
“I draw on my relationships to my ancestors and that feeds into my work, but I don’t necessarily put myself in a rigid box of having to aesthetically or visually build upon the work of people that came before me.”
Atlookan’s jewelry practice uses mostly hide, wire and beads and she also avoids the label of “traditional” artist.
Living in the north provides many opportunities to celebrate a rich artistic community and unique opportunities to reconcile consumerism with a search for meaning. Get to know the artists in your area.
Richmond, Christie-Peters and Atlookan can be found on Instagram.