bead more. worry less.

Life is happening. It’s been crazy but so great. I’ve been shuffling around many hats and I’ve been trying to do it all.  I haven’t been up on the Tea and Bannock blog for weeks because I simply couldn’t keep up. I needed to take a break or learn to let go of some of my workload. Slowly I’ve learned to say no to a few things, loose control a little bit and to RELAX. Chill out. Just to be ok with doing nothing, sometimes.

I’m a photographer, a girlfriend, a full time stepmother of three, a traditional games manager with ASCNWT, a blogger for Tea & Bannock and a Chef de Mission for Team NWT at 2017 North American Indigenous Games. My life has been moving so quickly that I often forget to stop and smell the flowers. 

While trying to do it all and run a photography business on top of it, my computer happened to crash back in January 2017. Boom! Done-zo! This has caused a lot of frustration in my world as a blogger and photographer. However I took it for what it is and decided it wasn’t all chaos.  It was a good excuse to kickback and take a step away from my own art. Give it time and just let it breathe.

Taking a step back has lead to other creative outlets and fresh ideas. I’ve always been a creative person and I have my mom to thank for that. My mind is busy coming up with new projects to execute. Any other artist would know exactly what I mean. It’s a constant process. My hands always have to be busy creating.  So instead of putting all my energy into a computer that crashed (which I tend to do), I decided to shift my focus on to another art of mine – beading and sewing. 

I never really was exposed to beading while I was growing up. I would find my mom on her sewing machine altering clothes and creating costumes. My slavey class with Maragret Vandell and Angie Matto often consists of working on mini culturally focused projects to take home but that was the extent of it.

One day in my teenage years, I decided I needed to learn. I wanted to learn. And I want to be a really good beader. (Dene Goals!)

So I dug out all of my mother’s beads that have been stashed away for some time. I claimed them for myself and she was happy to share any knowledge and tricks she had.

My mother is also a very creative person; she could take anything and make it into something bigger and better. Anyone that has been close to our family over the years knows that Joyce can take an idea and make it happen. From when I was a preteen she encouraged me to sew, bead, embroider, create, be good and do good.  But it wasn’t until this year that I really picked it up consistently.

In her teenage years, my mom would use a loom to bead and would create beaded belts, guitar straps, headbands, wallets, etc. If it wasn’t for her encouragement, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at today (in all aspects of life). She would often travel to other communities and pick up patterns, material, beads, looms, fur, etc. for me to use to practice and keep me intrigued.

I figured if I wanted to pass that tradition down to my children and be good at it then it’s best that I start beading when I had the time. The beginning was a frustrating process, the lines weren’t completely straight and the control freak in me had a hard time accepting that I wasn’t good at it right away… but I persevered anyway.

I developed a huge bin of beading supplies and it quickly became the bin of unfinished projects. They just kept piling up. I had unfinished key chains, change purses, and many uppers. (Projects that didn’t make the cut.) I’m sure many of you would agree that it’s hard to work on a project you don’t completely love. 

 

So the moment that I decided I wanted to take on a large beaded project – dedicate time, put some effort into it and make sure that I finish it – was the moment my lifelong best friend told me she was pregnant. I knew I wanted to create something special for her and my soon to be niece. Right off the bat I knew what I was going to do. I was going to make her a baby belt. I didn’t tell her what I was doing, it was going to be a surprise. 

I got a friend to cut out and draw up a baby belt. (Thank you Tanya!) I started on this baby belt in December 2016 and gave it to my best friend soon after her sweet baby girl arrived in February 2017. I worked many late nights on it; lay the beads down, tac it down with two needles… and then take it all apart in frustration. The hardest thing about it was choosing the colour combinations… and having all the pink and purple bead colours rub off. I would often sigh out loud because I would become so mad. This went on for weeks but I absolutely loved that my mind and hands were kept busy during the very cold Yellowknife winter nights. As I progressed on this project, it all started to come to life. I couldn’t believe that I could bead a large project like a baby belt!

During this time I turned out to be that girl who would pick up everyone’s bead work and examine it. If you beadwork on your table, I would sit there and watch you sew or better yet, join you. If you were wearing moccasins, I would kneel down to look at your feet. I would look at the knots. I would touch the beads. I would even pick it up to smell it if it was sewn on moose hide. I was determined.

I finished the baby belt in record time and delivered it to my best friend. She was shocked. I was shocked that I actually finished it. There was no words just pure excitement between both of us. Then I was hooked! I couldn’t stop nor did I want to stop.

I knew if I wanted to be an amazing beader then I would have to practice, practice and practice some more. I convinced my sister (who has gone to school for fashion design) shortly after I was done the baby belt to figure out a way to make graduation stole for my mother. Like I’ve said, my mother is driven and can do anything she puts her mind to. Two years ago, she decided to take a Language Revitalization Diploma program to learn Dene Zhatie, to revive the dene language of the Deh Cho. We are all so proud of her for  sticking through the tough times and finishing this program. Next week she’ll be walking the stage in an honour ceremony in our hometown surrounded by people who love her. I knew she needed something special to wear to this ceremony, it was a no brainer – she needed a traditional garment sewn with love to proudly wear when she receives her diploma. 

It took me about 4 weeks to bead her graduation stole. Every bead tacked down with positive thoughts and well wishes. I took it everywhere I went in a small tupperware bin with many tubes of delica beads and bended beading needles. It came with me on work trips From Yellowknife to Toronto and everywhere in between; it has seen many airports, hotel rooms, ferry rides, road trips and campsites. I guess you can say I take after my mom – if I want to accomplish anything, you bet I’ll get it done.

Last week my sister and I surprised her with the graduation stole. It took my sister about 2 hours to sew it together; she whipped it up like nobodies business. My mom opened it up and gasped for air – again almost no words, just pure excitement. 

I will forever consider myself a beginner when it comes to beading, embroidery or any traditional art. There is still so much to learn! This art has taught me to be patient, especially when you’re blue in the face from frustration, and to be supportive, by teaching others what you know and to encourage them to pick up their unfinished projects or to begin new ones. These projects have given me so much pride, I feel connected to my ancestors and grounded as an indigenous person.

I’ve learned to see the good in my computer failing on me. I would have never picked up the needle and thread otherwise. I’m back to capturing moments with my family and shooting photography for myself. Always choose to see the good in every bad situation. Hopefully one day I’ll be back to creating scenes with models and capturing families but in the meantime, you can find me beading!

Shawna McLeod

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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

Keeping Dene Culture Alive

The Dene community of Fort Simpson almost doubled in population during the 4th Annual Men’s Handgames Tournament as they welcomed spectators, drummers, and handgame players to the community. Fort Simpson is a larger First Nations Dene community located where the two rivers meet – the Liard River and The Mackenzie River – and they expected roughly 300-500 people for a highly intense competition.

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This year, they hosted 19 teams and about 300 people into the community. Many folks traveled by road, by air and by boat to take in the festivities. It was pretty neat to see first hand how the tournament was organized; they had a designated area in the community for people to camp, there was drum dances every night, the hand games committee provided the players dinners and made sure that all visitors were well taken care of.

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Traditionally, the men played the hand games as a way of survival. Often times the Dene men would be out hunting for long periods of time and would play hand games while they were out on the land. It’s known back then as a trading game, for things like furs, bullets, food, guns, and dog teams – anything useful for survival out on harsh land conditions. Sometimes the game would be played for long periods of times, last for hours or even days.

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The hand games competition can be quite confusing for somebody who has never seen it played before. There is people crowed into a tight circle, the is drummers singing surrounding the hand game players and the players are seated or kneeling on the mats chanting, hiding their token and/or making hand gestures.

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The energy produced by these men wearing their traditional hand made vest, singing their hearts out, drumming and handgame gestures is quite euphoric. It’s almost like you want to jump right in there and start drumming or playing the game too.

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Usually teams of eight compete against each other, sitting face-to-face kneeling on a mat, guessing which hands the opposing players are using to hide the token, such as a coin or a small rock.

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The guesser is on the opposite team of the ones hiding the token in their hands. If the guesser correctly guesses the hand with the token, he is then out. For each incorrect guess, the team hiding the token gets a stick.

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The team hiding the token will continue to get sticks until everyone on their team is out.

It is played best out of three format; once a team wins two rounds of 21 sticks, they win that entire game and goes on to play entirely new team.

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There was an overall sense of pride from everyone involved. There were grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, fathers, youth, toddlers and babies all gathered into one place to socialize, to teach one another, to celebrate a culture and a everlasting tradition.

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 – Shawna McLeod 

The Reluctant Hunter

When I started dating my husband, over 9 years ago, he gifted me with something that took me awhile to appreciate, hunting. Although my dad was an avid hunter, fisher, and outdoorsman, I was never exposed to that growing up. Insert future-husband Branden. His family loved hunting, and they took an annual trip each fall to hunt in western Alberta. I’ll admit, although I loved the camping trips, getting outdoors, swimming, and cool nights by the fire, I would often get bored with hunting itself.

4Hunting requires patience, a lot of patience, often with no reward. Even when we did get something, it was followed by a lot of back breaking work, skinning, hauling, hanging, cutting the meat up. Most often it is just my husband and I who do the cutting the meat up. It is W-O-R-K. Hard work. Branden loved the entire experience but I was not as infatuated with it. It took me awhile to understand why. Why do you love this crazy lifestyle?

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It wasn’t until my dad gifted me a gun in 2014 that I realized how much I could love hunting. It opened up a new aspect to hunting trips that didn’t really exist before, that I could actually be a hunter, instead of just am observer. As macabre as it sounds, the idea of getting meat for our family, of being a provider was so indescribable. I wanted so badly to be able to get us meat that we needed. I finally started understanding my husbands love a little bit more.

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It took me months, 8 months to be exact, before I would kill my first moose. I’ll never forget the feeling. Adrenaline, fear, humbleness in the act itself. Truly indescribable. Now when I hunt, I enjoy it. Even though most of the time I know Branden will be taking the shot, and that even more often no shot will be taken, it is just so much more enjoyable because I am much more immersed in it. I listen, I hold my breath, was that a moose walking through the bush? Hunting is now experience that nothing can compare to, enriched by my senses being so much more aware of the land surrounding me. What a gift. Hunting is still the same amount of work as before, more in fact because now that I am one of the hunters, is is expected that I’ll contribute more to every other aspect. It takes hours to cut up a moose, I can do it. I’ve also hauled my share of legs. This past season I was trying to surprise my husband by getting two legs cut up while he was at work. I ended up cutting my finger and going to the hospital (just to be safe), but I promise I am most often more competent and careful. It was also a great lesson in keeping our knives sharp. Unfortunately I didn’t get to finish cutting the meat up for him before he got home.

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Our favorite meat is moose. We won’t hunt deer because we don’t like to the taste of deer. We snare rabbits and hunt ducks, they make amazing soups. In the summer months we love to fish, walleye is our favorite.  It’s so rewarding to know that we get this food from the land, we know exactly where it comes from. We don’t like spending our money on the insanely priced meat at the supermarkets, so it is also rewarding in that aspect. We don’t over hunt, but we try get enough to last our small family until the following season. We have so many stories to tell that are so much more richer when I look back on them, experiences that I am much more grateful to have, because of my newfound appreciation of hunting.

I am so excited to raise our future children with the gift of hunting, that not long ago I took for granted.

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