Stickgames and Stories – Starleigh Grass, Guest Blogger

My people, the Tsilhqot’in, were traditionally nomadic people. Because we were nomads most of the things that we owned had practical value. Our art was used to adorn clothing, basketry, and practical items. Prior to contact, art was not something behind a glass case or hanging on the wall. It was something we interacted with on a daily basis. Everyone had the capacity to create art and most people did in some form or another.

During the period of time that our material culture became commodified and our subsistence culture became criminalized, people made items to sell to non-Tsilhqot’ins. I’ve seen some of these items in the Museum of Anthropology, including items made by one of my great grandmothers. I’ve held some of her items.

I know on an intellectual level that if it weren’t for colonialism, I would have learned the art of basketmaking, and to hold a Tsilhqot’in basket wouldn’t be such a rare event. I carry some resentment because I know that if it weren’t for the hardships caused by the criminalization of our way of life combined with the gathering of our material goods on the assumption that we would soon vanish, then these baskets would not have been acquired through colonial capitalism and be housed far from where they came from.

On a soul level, though, when I hold these items I am filled with gratitude for the woman who made them, because to some degree I owe my existence to her basketry expertise and her ability to sell the baskets in this newly imposed system of capitalism.

My grandmother beaded medallions and did applique on handmade purses and other items. Many of my family members had medallions on their rearview mirrors. They were treasured because they were a symbol of her affection. I remember her fondly sitting and beading and talking in Tsilhqot’in for hours at a time and she was very happy while she was making things and visiting.

My mother taught me how to bead on a loom when I was a teenager. I spent many hours with my mother and my sister beading. We beaded delicate chokers and experimented with fringes coming off of the chokers. My aunt showed me how to do applique and she made my son a beautiful medallion.

I stopped beading for several years. When my son was in primary school he attended a public school that required blue, yellow, and white uniforms. I embellished his pockets with yellow and blue beaded trim. Beyond that, I didn’t bead much for over ten years. I had beads, and once and awhile I would gather the beads and then look for a needle or thread or scissors, and abandon projects before they were even started because I just couldn’t focus long enough to get my materials together. Someday, I thought, I should start beading again.

I chose sobriety and started playing stickgames in 2011. I started making beaded stickgame sets less than a year later. Stickgames (known by a variety of names including handgames, bonegames, slahal, lehal, lahal) are a traditional game of chance. The oldest stickgame set in existence are about 12,000 years old, and the set is made out of mastodon bones. There are a number of variations of stickgames. The version of stickgames that I play is played by Indigenous people up and down the west coast, and into the prairies. Stickgames and beading have both played an integral role in maintaining my sobriety.

During the potlatch ban (1885-1951), the singing that accompanies stickgames would have been illegal. Many cultural practices were driven underground, and the suppression led to less participation in cultural practices. Now we are in the process of bringing them back. When I bead sets that people are proud to own and use, I feel like I am contributing to the revitalization of culture in a material way.

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The first few beaded sets that I made were gifted to friends and family. I also used some of my early beaded sets as prizes for our family stickgames at our traditional fishing camp. I’m an teacher, and I donated a set to a fundraising event for an Aboriginal education organization. I travel extensively for stickgames. If a community near me has never had a tournament or is bringing back a tournament that has not happened for awhile then I make it a priority to go there. I also try to go to places that are new to me or places where I know someone who is from there. Sometimes I raffle off a set to help offset my stickgame travel costs.

My preference is to trade. When people ask “what do you want?” I ask “what are you good at?” I have traded for a traditional Coast Salish weaving, a custom carved staff, a set made out of elk antler, and more. I treasure these items because they remind me that I am part of a community of creative and talented people. Even when people don’t make a trade, the conversations about what could be potential trades are treasured too, because through them I get to know about all of the talents people around me have. One time someone said that they were not good at anything. I told them “I don’t believe you. Everyone is good at something.” I look forward to the day they get back to me with their offer for trade.

My most memorable trade was to an educator from Port Hardy. I met him when I worked for a provincial education organization. In his community traditionally games involved 21 sticks, as opposed to the more common 11 sticks we use today. He requested a set of 21 sticks. He brought his dance group to a conference in Vancouver, and he spoke and led a gifting ceremony. The dance group helped hand out oolichan grease, seaweed, and salmon to myself and my co-workers and I handed the the sticks to the dance group. Then they sang and we went around the room and showed everyone our gifts.

Because I raffle sets, people often recognize me now when I go places and ask whether I have any sets. Sometimes when I am doing a raffle, people tell me how they would do the set differently and sometimes I learn from them. When people say “I could make that,” I respond “yes, you could,” and if they have questions about how to make them, I share what I know.

I draw inspiration for sets from popular colour schemes on the pow wow trail and from colour schemes that appeal to me. I read articles online about analogous, complementary, and neutral colour schemes and this knowledge has enhanced my designs. Sometimes people ask for custom colours and when those are not colours I would normally use, then I grow from the experience of working with their colours.

I do have my own style that has evolved over time. When I am really happy with a set, it usually includes these elements:

  • Solid bands at the top and bottom
  • Continuity between the two sides and the kick
  • The two sides to have an identical pattern, but with the colours switched around
  • The design wraps all the way around the stick
  • The kick is the most complex
  • Bright colours
  • Contrast between the colours used for the two sides

Sometimes I make sets where I try to create an image, such as chipmunks or coastal canoes with canoe pullers. I love seeing people’s faces when they see those designs because I’m 100% certain that the designs are one of a kind. I made a set out of one of my great-grandmother’s basketry patterns and that was a gratifying project. I try to work the designs out in my head as much as possible instead of using a pen and paper. My mind is always going, and when it’s working out the puzzle of a design it doesn’t have time to needlessly worry about the daily stresses of life.

I bead for a lot of reasons. I bead because it puts me in a peaceful state. I bead because I get an inherent joy from creating art. I bead because it connects me to the stickgame community and other artists in a meaningful way. I bead because making useful and aesthetically pleasing items connects me with my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and all of my beautiful ancestors that came before them.

A lot of people I have met want to learn how to bead. My advice is to just start. You can learn from trial and error, from studying others’ work, and from talking with other beaders. You have art and beauty inside of you, and if you feel an urge to share it with the world then just do it!

 – Starleigh Grass


Starleigh Grass is Tsilhqo’tin. She’s a mother, teacher, stickgame player, and beader. Her professional interests include teaching about residential schools in public schools, Indian Control of Indian Education, and the integration of Aboriginal literature in grades K-12. Her personal interests include culture, community, road trips, family, nature, and fitness. Her ideal tea is orange pekoe brewed in a large kettle and prepared with sweetened condensed milk in an enamel cup. She’s trying to be less brand conscious so Tetley, Red Rose, No Name…. anything goes these days. Her ideal bannock is thick, heavy, more salty than sweet, leavened with baking soda, and prepared in a cast iron pan. >> Find her on Instagram, Twitter and on her blog, Twinkle’s Happy Place

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teacups and beadwork, lace and birch bark

I remember snippets of Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland creeping their way into my childhood. I remember dreaming about falling down a rabbit hole. I remember thinking about how delicious a rabbit tastes. I remember the eating of the cookies and the drinking of the liquids, and the shrinking and the growing. I remember the confusion, and I remember Alice meeting the Mad Hatter. Laughable, slightly off, eccentric. Doesn’t fit in. Doesn’t blend.

Only years later, I recognize a kindred soul.

Looking back at that memorable scene – that Mad Hatter Tea Party – I find myself thinking critically, more and more, on this. An outsider falling into another world and getting frustrated when the rules and structures don’t make sense, trying to implement their sense of propriety on the matters. Sounds familiar, eh.

It was with this little idea that a talented crew and I started dreaming up a creative session, featuring a Métis youth from Duck Lake. I first noticed Danitra thanks to Facebook. Her Grandma is one of my Mom’s high school friends, and she wore this stunning yellow gown for her graduation. I quickly creeped her and asked her Grandma to give Danitra my cell, and we went from there.

With an all-Indigenous team (hair by Shayla Weisbrot of The Salon 467, Duck Lake and makeup by Kacey Beaudry, MUA, Saskatoon), and with the multi-talented Alexandra George (former guest blogger) as our behind-the-scenes photographer and set designer, we managed to create a little bit of magic.

A little bit of Indigenous magic.

And I think it was from the stories and community that this session carried. Nothing I do comes without stories. Shayla tied sweetgrass from my various journey’s into Danitra’s hair as we sat around her kitchen table, sipping coffee. Kacey and her pile of makeup stood in front of the house where we would run around with our cousins, laughing as my cousin Alex jumped on the wooden table to start decorating the set. We integrated a beaded teabag from Catherine Blackburn (former guest blogger). We rocked earrings from Savage Rose, and decorated the set with beadwork from Beads, Rhymes, Life. We were borrowed a beautiful birch bark basket from Silver Wolf Trading Post. We ate local donuts and fry bread from the Beardy’s Gas Station. Alex created a faded and wrinkled Royal Proclamation, as well as planted teapots full of succulents. She put together a bouquet of wild, dried flowers and found feathers. I used sage gifted to me by the Women’s Shelter from Walpole Island, On. My late Grandma’s camera was snuck in there, as was a crystal sugar cube dish, reminiscent of the one that we used to sneak candy out of at my late Grandparent’s house. We decorated a hat with my daughter’s Métis sash and a hawk feather from a friend. We were on our land, land that my mom was raised on. My Aunt and Uncle laughed and teased us, helping us with the roses, the moving of tables, and entertaining the neighbours as they stopped in to see what we were doing. Oh, I love small communities.

And as the sun set, and the session ended, we laughed together.

“Do you feel good about this?” I asked Danitra, shooting the last image.

“I feel amazing. I couldn’t have imagined this.”

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 – tenille campbell

The Process of Beadwork – Catherine Blackburn, Guest Blogger

I pour the beads out of the small plastic bags into separate piles on an old tea towel. Bright bags in every colour litter the dining room table as the odd bead rolls off the edge, bouncing on the floor as it finally comes to a stop somewhere by my feet. This has become all very common the last few months as I work to complete projects, while new ones percolate in my mind. The process can be both therapeutic and overwhelming, yet when I make the last stitch…my oh my…oh so gratifying.

I sit here and try to gather my thoughts, telling myself to relax and just speak truthfully, as I answer some of those questions about why it is I do what I do, and also how to find the perfect words that someone may hold dear in their journey. The over-analyzing sometimes unbearable. My anxiety can often get the best of me.

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I was born in Ile a la Crosse, Saskatchewan, where the closest hospital exists in proximity to Patuanak, Saskatchewan, the place that holds the key to much of my work. I am a member of the English River First Nation. I am mixed blood, having Dene and European roots. I grew up in Choiceland, a predominantly white community in rural Saskatchewan. After attending university, I immediately travelled. I spent an incredible 4 months in Morley Alberta working with Aboriginal youth, alongside my dear friend Kirsten. The beautiful soul that taught me the art of applied bead work. I spent a year in Seoul, South Korea, and later 2 years in Taiwan. These are just some of the experiences that influence my work. These and all the moments in between.

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This new place of comfort includes both memories and moments alike. The smell of smoke from a wood burning stove will always transport me to the few memories I hold of my late grandpa Eugene. The sound of my mom’s laugh as she speaks Dene with her siblings on the phone brings me joy. Honouring my late aunty Tiny through learned jewellery techniques links me in ways I otherwise feel lost. Speaking to my grandma, as our conversation gets skewed and distorted with our language barriers, now makes me smile. Like the other day when we were somehow talking about my struggle with shingles (I don’t have shingles). I’ve grown to not be ashamed of how I don’t speak or understand the Dene language. I’ve welcomed myself, this strong woman with mixed blood and mixed experience. I don’t have the perfect explanations in response to heated conversations on socio-economic problems plaguing our people. I’ve also learned to accept that I don’t need to explain at all….educate yourself.

With this liberation, my work processes have become more freeing. Using traditional materials and techniques I’ve twisted the rules just enough to allow me to play. My bead work is photo-based, incorporating transfers, sometimes as a tool and others as a base for my design. No matter the final outcome my goal remains constant. The direct relationship to my European and Dene heritage challenges me to create innovative work that encourages dialogue between traditional art forms and new interpretations of them. These are the tools I use to create, and with those in mind that I hold near and dear to my heart, I am inspired to create messages of kinship and resiliency.

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And with that last stitch I take a deep breath. Ahhhhh, relief and satisfaction. A big smile and a much needed stretch of the back. I stand back and admire my work from all directions. At different angles the beads sparkle in shades of red, purple, blue and green. This beaded galaxy of colour forms a bruise. It’s colour and shape made apparent against the cream coloured deer hide of which it is applied to, the hide light in colour having never been kissed by smoke. The direction of beads twist and turn in application with every third bead being tacked down, reinforced.

I think about the story my mom once told me; how my grandmother once collected someone’s lost beads from the floorboard cracks of an old log cabin to start her first beading project. Now her table sits scattered with every colour of the rainbow while others sit stored away in cookie and tea tins.

I reflect on the reason for creating this beaded bruise, an expression of pain and continuous healing from the trauma of the residential school system. I think about the different voices created through my work; some speaking to raise awareness, and others reminding us all to tread compassionately. I reflect on the enormous task of our people to hunt, skin, stretch, and smoke hide, in all it’s knowledge and strength. I look down at my bead holder, the old tea towel, and notice that the beads so precisely poured onto it at the beginning of this project now lay scattered and mixed.

I pick up my project and realize its weight.

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Catherine’s work embraces two inspirations in her life-family and culture. Through the subject of family, she is inspired to express her own feelings and experiences which speak to the complexities of memory, history and cultural identity. Her art merges contemporary concepts with elements of traditional Dene culture, simultaneously exploring the significance and history of certain materials and their role in the fur trade. This direct relationship to her European and Dene heritage challenges her to create innovative work that encourages dialogue between traditional art forms and new interpretations of them. Through these overlapping themes of relationships, history, and identity, she hopes to weave a strong message of connection, kinship, and resiliency. Catherine encourages the viewer to reflect on their own experiences and to explore and question how we all define and appreciate the Aboriginal experience in Canada. – website 

Current Gallery Work: Bead Works, Slate Fine Art Gallery, Regina

Continuing Traditions in the Delta

When I think of my culture, I think of the beauty and absolute richness of it. Between the barren lands and boreal forest lies my mothers hometown – Inuvik. Located on the mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories, Inuvik is the ancestral home to both the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in people.

I was 17 when I first travelled to Inuvik as a participant in the Great Northern Arts Festival. I was the youngest to ever attend, and have been coming to the festival just about every year since. For me, it’s how I discover and learn about my inuvialuit culture. Each year is filled with spectacular new experiences, from aukpik (cloudberry) picking to meeting indigenous artists from all over sharing their culture and stories with the community.

When listening to elders and the locals speak, It’s touching to hear how much care and thought they invest into the land and the animals. Despite the cold, harsh weather and the barren wilderness, especially during the long winters, the Inuvialuit were able to survive for many many decades. The reason for their cultural continuation is because of their respectful lifestyle and great knowledge of the land they inhabit; hunting animals only when they needed food, and paying close attention to the way that these animals and their environment operate.

While soaking in all of the beauty of the North, I think it’s also important to acknowledge some of the major issues in a lot of the small communities like Inuvik. Hearing about most of the issues is so much different then being surrounded and in plain sight of them. For those that aren’t aware, Inuvik was and still is home to many survivors, greatly affected by residential schools – which was to remove and disconnect indigenous children from their families, identities and traditions. And so to have art and an event such as the Great Northern Arts Festival to bring forth its beauty brings me great comfort.

And so as an artist, one of the ways of giving back to community is through teaching. This year, at the festival, I made sure to set up workshops in order to teach and hopefully inspire some of the local youth. It was incredible to watch these talented young people extremely focused and passionate about learning. The highlight of the whole festival was being able to provide resources for them to stay positive and to infuse confidence in themselves through art. My future goals are to one day provide more nurturing for these beautiful northerns, and hopefully inspire others to heal from the affects of Indigenous assimilation and colonization in more positive ways.

 – caroline blechert

Animals Traits and Inspiration

Recently my kind friends Erynne, her sister Emilee, and Yamilla agreed to help me out with a photoshoot for my Creations for Continuity business. Erynne and Emilee became my beautiful models and Yamilla, in exchange for jewellery, became my photography mentor of the day.

Before Yamilla, I was basically just winging my photoshoots doing everything by trial and error with any given lighting. Hard to believe I’ve had this camera for years and not known what half of the buttons do. (I’m really hoping that doesn’t get me kicked off this blog for saying that!) In any case, I’m learning slowly, but surely. By the end of the day I discovered what is now my favourite camera mode – the multiple exposure setting. Like a kid with a $50 budget at the dollar store – I went totally nuts while excitedly taking about a gazillion photos. Once we were done, there was pretty much a play by play of the whole photoshoot. Emilee, Erynne and I being our crazy weird selves, went through all the images, adding a story with silly character voices onto each others awkward in-between poses. My sister knows what i’m talking about – something unseemly only I and maybe a few select others would do/know about.

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Its people and moments like this that become reminders of why I continue to do what I do. Being a full time jewellery artist for over two years has been beyond amazing, with it however, as many full-time artists come to realize, ensues sufferable challenges. And though I could list many, maintaining self motivation and the indispensable desire for connection with others after spending X amount of hours in frantic solitary work confinement are some of the greatest ones. Building strong connections and community through art has become a vital component for not only the growth of my business but for my own personal growth and well being. Ultimately, as products of our environment, if you want to have a certain type of greatness in your life, you have to surround yourself around the types of great people you’d like to see reflected in yourself. Who we choose to invest ourselves with become our role models – shaping our outlook on life, and moulding us in ways that we could have never imagined; Emilee and Erynne are certainly two of those people for me.

Over a cup of tea, soaking in the sounds and sights of nature surrounding us, we delved into the discussion of animal traits mirrored within ourselves. And It was at that moment, when the idea for this photoshoot and the creation of the hummingbird necklace emerged.

Below features an image of Emilee wearing a newly CforC neck piece titled “Ookpik” meaning Owl in Inuvialuktun. As rulers of the night, owls uphold deep meaning for they  are seen as a powerful majestic creatures linked with wisdom and foresight – needless to say, all qualities held deeply within Emilee.

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Featured below is Erynne wearing a piece inspired entirely by her nature and its title – the “hummingbird”necklace . The hummingbird symbolizes beauty, intelligence, and love. These tiny and quick creatures are viewed as messengers of joy – as most people would agree, this statement is very much Erynne. She is as energetic and radiant as a hummingbird, gracing all those around her with a bold, energizing, and luminous presence.

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Thank you Erynne, Emilee and Yamilla for your deep support, guidance, and participation in this photoshoot! Its truly an honour to have such memorable beauties representing my line; symbolizing and embodying our indigenous and cultural identities with tremendous strength and prestige.

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