Beading as an art form: land activism, cultural history and resurgence

How are Indigenous artists beading today?

Embroidery has always been an important part of Indigenous culture, especially with its prevalence on personal items. Embroidery showcases layered floral patterns, often described as a “relatively narrow spectrum of colours.” It carries an important tradition and representation of artistic freedom for these communities, who have distinct and unique styles even to this day.

Another important medium for Indigenous women is the use of shells, bones or seeds, the earliest form of beadwork. This was used in everyday life and sacred times, using geometrical patterns, showcasing different shapes and ornaments in a variety of colours.

Created with string, white and purple shell beads, wampum belts were the physical representation of treaties and alliances. Wampum symbolizes a living record of events, relations and agreements and could even be used to represent the confirmation of relationships, including marriage proposals. Wampum belts were also used to invite nations and settlers to a meeting. They represented agreements on the behalf of First Peoples and settlers, however settlers chose to disregard the wampum belts as legally-binding.

Following European colonizer contact with First Peoples, the introduction of glass beads through trade between the 15th and 19th centuries allowed for more intricate designs.

These changes led  to the creation and use of floral designs, which date back to the 1800s. Geometric designs also began to take an important place in Indigenous communities, used as decorative elements on clothing and footwear. To completely understand the sudden return of beadwork, the concept of resurgence has to be defined in its entirety. Resurgence represents “the assertion of Indigenous world views that are fluid yet connected to ancestral ways of knowing’’ and “a way of being that is inherently Indigenous at the exclusion of the colonial state, an insertion of Indigenous ways of being into the colonial status quo,”  as stated by a portfolio on Beadwork at Carleton University. 

These designs are honoured and embraced by Indigenous artists today,  across Turtle Island

Concordia-based artist, Skawenatti, works primarily with digital art, but has created a modern day example of a wampum belt, titled Intergalactic Friendship Belt (Xenomorph, Onkwehón:we, Na’vi, Twi’lek, E.T.). Her work focuses primarily on comparing Indigenous and settler relations with alien, futuristic worlds.

Indigenous art and jewelry is often associated with activism. The Birch Trail sells “Land Back” and jingle tin earrings, in addition to their regular collection of traditional Indigenous medicinal herbs contained in resin.

These jingle tins are used in dance and in protest, wearing them makes a statement in support of Indigenous causes. These earrings are sold to raise funds for Wet’suwet’en in flash-bidding sales on Instagram.

 Beading as land activism, cultural history, resurgence and wellness

According to Mohawk artist, Destiny Thomas, beadwork holds a special meaning and is much more than a beautiful form of art to her. “Beads, for me, hold a therapeutic property that I feel could be implemented in today’s therapy,” Thomas said. “It’s culturally relevant to Indigenous peoples. It creates an open and understanding space to discuss topics like personal hardships and identity issues.’’

Thomas was only 19 when she first arrived in Montreal to study Art Education at Concordia University. She’s originally from Akwesasne, New York and was taught beadwork by her mother, who continues to practice today.

“Beadwork allowed me to calm my mind. When I came to Montreal to begin my studies, I felt so very alone and anxious because I had to somehow navigate public transportation in french, finding my way between both campuses, and making all new friends who aren’t from my community.’’ she said.  Thomas no longer wants to keep beadwork to herself and uses it to converse, where offering a safe space to discuss trauma and abuse is possible all while creating something beautiful.

Her goal is to make beadwork completely inclusive, her philosophy being to make jewelry that is for everyday rather than traditional wear.

“In the United States, I know someone who is Indigenous, who would not wear her beaded earrings because she feared being targeted whilst taking public transportation,” she said. “She felt the need to hide. So, when I make beadwork to sell, I want it to be that a person, regardless of gender or ethnicity, is proud to be wearing my products. If they’re Indigenous, I hope they feel comfortable and confident to be wearing beadwork.’’

“I’ve witnessed that Quebec has a discriminatory view on English-only speakers. Of course, this isn’t applied to universities or a few work places,” Thomas noted. Montreal’s art world is accepting but it has its hardships, especially when artists only speak English. The English and French art communities rarely overlap.

When it comes to figures of authority, such as police officers, Thomas admits the conflict she feels within: “I’m already faced with a push-back because there’s a chance that once I reveal my Indigeneity, I will not gain the help I need,’’ said Thomas. She was also referring to experiences from friends of hers where police officers refused to assist them.

Cultural appropriation or appreciation?

“I have had people ask the question ‘I’m non-Indigenous, so is it ok if I wear your products?’ and my response is that this is the opposite of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is when a non-Indigenous person produces and sells Indigenous products. That’s a no-no.’’ she said. Thomas always lets her customers know it isn’t problematic to be wearing Indigenous products as long as they are made and sold  by Indigenous creators.

In times of crisis, be it in social action, fighting for Indigenous land rights or in social isolation, it is essential to continue to support local artists. Thomas’ online shop showcases gorgeous and extremely colourful circular bead earrings, pins, hide holders (small pouches made out of animal hide) with beaded edges in black, purple, blue, chartreuse and orange on each distinctive design.

For materials, gifts and more visit


Images courtesy of Destiny Thomas @destinythomasdesigns

Exit mobile version