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I confronted my misconceptions about being Indigenous by embracing beadwork

This First Person piece is by Tenille Campbell, a Dene/Métis artist from English River First Nation in Saskatchewan. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.

I was sitting with my cousin Tara around her kitchen island, watching as she cleaned up around me, during a winter day. I was trying to thread a needle — my eyes squinting, my hands shaking.

Once accomplished, I grinned at her and asked, somewhat sheepishly, “Do you ever feel, like, real sacred when you do beadwork?”

We stared at each other for a beat and then burst into loud, aunty-like laughter.

“I know exactly what you mean,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

When I looked back at my beadwork, I swore softly as my thread had gotten loose and I had to start all over. 

‘I have been humbled’

You see, I’m kind of bad at this, and it’s been a minute since I’ve been bad at something.

I’m new to beadwork. I hesitate to call myself an artist because I still struggle with laying the beads in and matching colours. Not that any of that defines artist, but that’s the standard to which I’m holding myself.

I’m new to this world of seed beads and thread sizes and needle heads and thread conditioner. Like, what even is thread conditioner? I never knew there were so many styles of seed beads — two-cut, three cut, charlotte cut and so forth — as well as so many finishes — lustre, matte, metallics, translucent, opaque and so on. It’s a whole new world of both language and learning.

A cookie tin sits open. Inside is some beadwork, along with strings of beads and other supplies.
A tin containing Tenille Campbell’s beadwork and supplies. Campbell says she struggled at first with not immediately being good at beadworking. (Tenille Campbell)

It’s been invigorating and incredibly humbling, and I’ve been thinking about that statement I made — about feeling sacred — for a while now.

I’m not the type of person who stays with something I’m not good at. I like to be good at things. But I have end goals with beadwork. I’m inspired by artists like Jaida Grey Eagle, Michelle Sound and Catherine Blackburn, who all push their beadwork, embroidery and photography into unique and beautiful pieces of art the redefine what we can do with beads and how we can use them.

I have soft  images in my head about what I want to create — textured images filled with beadwork, embroidery and moose hair tufting. I want to create beadwork that invite touch and that carry stories in the lay of the land. But my dreams are far more intricate than my current talent level.

It has taken all my willpower to remember that I am a student, that it is OK to be bad at something and that practice is the only thing that will make me better or at least more accomplished.

I have stuck needles under nails and through skin, and learned to swear softly. I have dropped hanks of beads and watched them scatter, understanding in that moment that I will be finding loose beads in my house until the end of time. I have had beadwork fall apart in my hands as I cut the wrong thread, watching hours of work slip away.

I have been humbled in a fundamental way.

Exploring my misconceptions

Aside from the humbling of talent, there has been a humbling of spirit. I’ve never considered myself a traditional Indigenous person. I’ve never felt the need to prove my Indigeneity through beadwork, cultural practices like hide tanning or cultural preservation like learning an Indigenous language. Having grown up on reserve and within community, I have never felt the need to measure up to someone else’s idea of what an Indian is.

So while I was an avid admirer and buyer of Indigenous arts, I never wanted to wear the ribbon skirt, braid my hair and sit down with beads in hand.

Turns out I have my own misconceptions of what an Indian is. In my resistance against the perceptions of others, I unwittingly formed my own misconceptions of what beadwork is and what kind of person does it. I had judged others the same way I had specifically sought not be judged.

A pile of coloured beads with some pieces of beadwork resting on top of them.
Tenille Campbell says beadwork connects her not just to the people at the table but also to generations past. (Tenille Campbell)

One doesn’t have to be super native to want to work with culture. One doesn’t have to be super traditionalist to work with medicine. One doesn’t have to be super spiritual to talk with the Creator.

Beadwork has taught me how open and accepting our communities actually are, and how this practice of art through patience, knowledge and time connects not just the people at the table but generations past. Beadwork has taught me that while I am enough, I can always be a part of something more.

That welcome is what made me so determined to stay. When my Indigenous friends and I gather to bead in a circle as we sip tea and share stories, my mind calms in a way I have never experienced before.

I think about what we share in those times. I think about how my grandmother Rose beaded, how my cousin Tara sat and patiently taught me my first stitches, and how I never thought I would be in this space.

I never saw myself needing beadwork as part of my art practice, as part of how I express myself. But now, as I see my 11-year-old daughter play with my stash of beads and put together her own colour palettes, I recognize how beadwork can carry culture, memory and story, and provide safe spaces for us.

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for Opinion and First Person pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

Read more about what we’re looking for here, then email with your idea.

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