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‘It excites people’: First Nations artists give beadwork a modern twist

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The longstanding tradition of beadwork is taking on a new twist among young First Nations artists who’ve developed a long string of social media followers, helping many turn their hobbies into businesses.

Today’s bead art includes styles ranging from traditional Anishinaabe floral designs, to creations using pop culture images such as baby Yoda or Hello Kitty.

These three Ontario artists speak about how they got started, their attempts to put modern flair into creations that are true to history, as well as the intricacies of their work.

Rebecca Doxtator, owner of Otsitsidesigns in London, Ont.

Doxtator is from Oneida Nation of the Thames and started beading as a hobby in 2015. She began selling her work a few years later, after posting her creations on social media. Her number of followers as well as her business have been growing steadily.

'It excites people': First Nations artists give beadwork a modern twist
Beaded cherry earrings by Doxtator, who says her traditional beadwork style has a pop culture twist. (Rebecca Doxtator/Otsitsidesigns)

“Traditionally, Haudenosaunee would do raised beadwork or beadwork for regalias,” said Doxtator.

“I haven’t perfected that or attempted that yet, but the work I do is more modern. My friend describes it [as]…traditional beadwork style with a pop culture twist. So I like to do bolo ties, rings, obviously earrings, phone grips. I do a variety of stuff, but it is more modern beadwork.”

In recalling how beadwork has evolved over the years, Doxtator said Haudenosaunee would use beadwork to show their stories and histories, and even mark political and historical events.

Today, artists still keep all that in mind in their beadwork, adding a modern perspective.

“I’ve seen people beading [images of] Beyoncé, or like their idols …,” said Doxtator, “so more people are able to consume and view it, and sort of understand it.” 

Shannon Gustafson, co-owner of RS Gustafson, Thunder Bay

'It excites people': First Nations artists give beadwork a modern twist
‘Tribal identity [is important] and so for me, it was going back, and learning about the history and learning about the old ways of creating beadwork,’ says Shannon Gustafson, co-owner of RS Gustafson in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Submitted by Shannon Gustafson)

Gustafson, from White Sand First Nation, has been beading for 25 years and runs her business with her partner, Ryan Gustafson.

Over the years, her work has evolved from geometric designs, to traditional floral designs. She said examining herself prompted her to look deeper at the craft.

“Tribal identity [is important] and so for me, it was going back, and learning about the history and learning about the old ways of creating beadwork,” said Gustafson.

'It excites people': First Nations artists give beadwork a modern twist
An example of the traditional floral designs by Gustafson. (Shannon Gustafson)

“This shift happened within the style of the work that I was creating, and that style was to sort of reflect more of the traditional floral patterns … I’m kind of in this place where I’ve gone back in time.”

Gustafson said for her to be comfortable with who she is and understand her background, as well as the work of artists before her.

Gustafson said modern beadwork creations include remnants and “bits and pieces” of the past, incorporated into contemporary and modern pieces, something she calls “amazing and brilliant.

“It’s a really good way to acknowledge… our ancestors and the things that they left here for us”

Gustafson feels today’s bead artists, and in particular women artists — who in the past often didn’t get credit for their work — are getting more recognition.

'It excites people': First Nations artists give beadwork a modern twist
One of Gustafson’s pouches with beadwork in a floral design. (Shannon Gustafson)

“Because things have changed and and there’s been this shift in the way we see the world … these beaders [are] being acknowledged for their creativity, and I think that is something that’s really cool because that’s not something that hasn’t happened in the past.”

Malinda Gray, beadwork artist, Trent University student

'It excites people': First Nations artists give beadwork a modern twist
Malinda Gray, a PhD candidate in Indigenous studies attending Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., says there are still people who don’t take beadwork as seriously as they should. . (Submitted by Malinda Gray)

Malinda Gray, from Lac Seul First Nation, creates beadwork that she sometimes sells. She is a PhD candidate in Indigenous studies, attending Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., where she wrote her thesis about beads and researches bead artists.

Gray said Indigenous beadwork art in the past was considered by many as souvenirs for tourists or trinkets. Today, bead artists and their styles are being noticed and taken more seriously, with their work seen as an art form.

“It’s beyond that now,” she said. “We are now more empowered to make art for ourselves, our people, for our culture, for expression. And like all great artists, it’s being welcomed and received.”

Gray said a big reason Indigenous people commonly did beadwork through history was to sell it for survival, including to feed their families, but that’s changing because it’s growing in popularity and being taken more seriously.

You know that this isn’t an arts and craft trade. This is real art. These are pieces that most people will keep for years and pass down.– Malinda Gray, beading artist and student

“But we didn’t need validity from the outside,” she stressed. “Indigenous people already were valid.

“There are still … beaders today, there are bead artists that do that [sell art to feed their families], and they are getting more respect.

“You know that this isn’t an arts and craft trade. This is real art. These are pieces that most people will keep for years and pass down,” said Gray.

She said the rise in popularity of beadwork is well deserved. But she also believes artists should petition the government to start a program similar to the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which registers beading artists as being Indigenous, so non-Indigenous artists in Canada don’t wrongly profit off their work. 

'It excites people': First Nations artists give beadwork a modern twist
Gustafson’s intricate floral beadwork on a pair of moccasins. (Shannon Gustafson)

Pop culture’s use of beadwork as well as promoting the art online have both helped its popularity, she said. 

“We have used these images in our beadwork and we will show them off on social media, and they become viral. And then once people start looking at maybe the baby Yoda earrings, they look at the Instagram.”

Gray added: “Now when I tell people I do beadwork, [it’s] ‘Do you have a [website]? Do you have Facebook? Instagram? Can you do these? Do you take orders?’ You know it, It excites people.”

But there are still people who don’t take beadwork as seriously as they should, said Gray.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, well, it’s a dead art form that’s being revitalized.’ I’m like, no, it’s not. It’s a resurgence. It’s always been there, and Indigenous people have always loved and accepted it, and know for it to be its own art form. It’s just now that the non-Indigenous people are waking up to this reality.”

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