Artwork and Stories: The Work of Métis Beader Krista Leddy

15 June 2022

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You’ve probably seen it: a beaded portrait of Louis Riel, with rainbows for his curly hair and moustache. Painstakingly beaded by Métis artist Krista Leddy, the portrait graced the pages of the June 2019 issue of Canadian Geographic, symbolism stitched throughout the image, from the Métis infinity symbol at his throat to the flower on his breast. Even the beads themselves were chosen for their meaning; the dusky purple beads outlining Riel’s face were manufactured while he was alive and sourced by Leddy to tie past to present. For many, Leddy’s Louis Riel piece is a stunning work of beaded art, maybe even their first exposure to Métis beading in a national magazine. But for some in Leddy’s Métis community, it was considered disrespectful, mocking even.
image description: a head and shoulders portrait created through the application of multi-coloured beads onto plain black fabric

The Louis Riel portrait.

“Some people said he looked like a clown, because of the rainbow,” explained Leddy, who pushed back, saying their opinions were a reflection of their own perceptions of the piece. “The rainbow is actually a critique about how we as a community don’t accept, don’t work [with], don’t embrace our LGBTQ2S+ members. We don’t embrace our relations, and that’s shame on us.” Leddy knew she wanted to create something that would persist; something that would share its message every time someone looked at it. “I just felt that it had to be stated and I know that excluding people from our community is not our way,” she said. “Could I stand up at a large Métis gathering and say those words? Probably. But would it get anywhere? Probably not. As soon as my words were spoken, they would drop on the ground, and that’s it. Louis [the portrait] lives on. He’s been published twice. He lives at the Canadian Geographic building. It creates a whole new narrative.” Although Leddy grew up seeing her aunties bead, and while her kokum would often gift her beaded pieces, it wasn’t until she was a mother, her children school age, that she took up bead and thread. A work accident kept her at home for four months, unable to practice the other arts and activities she enjoyed. But she could bead.
“It just spoke to me in a different way that my other art didn’t,” said Leddy. “I still paint, I still do that, but I don’t have the same peace with the project that I do when I bead something. There’s a level of satisfaction and peace. Even if it’s something controversial, like Louis Riel.” Leddy’s rekindled discovery of beading led her to reach out to her community to learn more, where she found that some members weren’t interested in or willing to share their stories and knowledge. She eventually did find others who were willing to share their time and knowledge, but those initial encounters are what shaped her current teaching practice. “I teach because people refused to teach me,” she said. “We don’t own putting colourful little bits on things; that’s not any one culture. That’s a human thing. Heck, even animals do it. It’s the stories that you tell with the patterns and colours, so when I teach, I always try and make sure people are using their own stories to navigate the image they’re making; that [the stories are] theirs to share.” For Leddy, teaching her classes is an important part of reconciliation, which she says has “kind of become a dirty word,” the meaning and intent behind it eroded with surface level changes and neglected promises. However, she adds, “There isn’t a word to really replace it in the sense of honest yearning to make right what was wrong and to rebuild the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”
image description: a table top, covered with small pieces of fabric, scissors, markers spools of thread and small plastic bags containing small beads; five pairs of hands are in the frame, handling some of the items

Sharing the art and the stories.

At the centre of beading (and art) are the stories: about the artists themselves and their experiences, but also about their ancestors and their communities. Leddy sees the power in sharing those stories to help rebuild and strengthen relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. “Art could be such an important piece of that. Because art can be so many stories,” she said. “It’s just like a picture: you have more information with a picture. With art you convey so much more, but you also start to get the emotions involved.”
image description: a hand-woven fabric sash lies on a table, surrounding three pieces of leather with beads applied to make images; small jars of beads sit nearby on the table
For her, that’s what reconciliation is about: creating understanding and redefining the relationship between people, learning about and respecting the cultures and technologies of the ancestors who created them to survive and thrive. However, Leddy also acknowledges that there’s a balance to pay attention to. She used to teach moccasin-making classes, but with the influx of non-Indigenous people appropriating and profiting from Indigenous art forms, she’s reluctant to continue. “Where do we draw that line? When does it take away from our community?” she asked. “There are a lot of people who see it, they like doing it, and then they want to profit off of it when our own artists can’t. This is theirs [Indigenous artists’]. This comes from their ancestry, and they aren’t able to benefit in the same way.” As it is, many Indigenous artists have to cater to the market’s demands in order to pay their bills. Pan-indigeneity, seeing all Indigenous groups as a singular group instead of many distinct cultures, creates a space where a small number of symbols are seen to represent everyone. Dreamcatchers and totem poles are seen as simply “Indigenous” rather than belonging to specific cultures and traditions. It creates an environment where what is or is not Indigenous becomes controlled by gatekeepers, rather than making space for all the stories and forms of art.

“Honestly, if my ancestors had the materials and the equipment that I have now, I think the art would look different, but the stories would be the same.”

“If you want Indigenous artists in your space, you’ve got to respect the Indigenous artists,” said Leddy. “And that includes their boundaries, their traditions, and their desires.”

Even for artists like Leddy who are given space to connect past to present and present to future, it can get tricky sometimes, as evidenced by the Riel piece. In the quest to reclaim traditional art, a murky space surfaces between honouring tradition and allowing artists to interpret that tradition in their own modern way.

Leddy is a self-proclaimed “indiginerd” with a love of sci-fi, science and biology, which is reflected in her piece “Rainbow Jellyfish.” Even though her ancestors may not have beaded jellyfish themselves, she still considers her art to be following in their traditional footsteps.

“A lot of times it carries those old stories, but to be blunt, it’s what I’m doing now that my ancestors did back then,” she said of the storytelling and meaning she gives her pieces. The stylizations and subject matters may be different, the colours used in different ways, but Leddy is still using the art form to share stories, document something and preserve it for future generations.

“For example, having the benefit of going to different places across the Métis homeland and seeing different pieces in museums, even seeing the contemporary pieces that are still listed as traditional, you see different styles that come from different beaders and different communities,” she explained, adding, “Honestly, if my ancestors had the materials and the equipment that I have now, I think the art would look different, but the stories would be the same.”

image description: an image of an octopus, created through the application of many colours and shapes of beads, applied to a plain black fabric

“Rainbow Jellyfish”

June is Indigenous History Month

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Further reading:
Reconciliation Canada
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

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All images courtesy of Krista Leddy.

Copyright © Amielle Christopherson except as indicated.
image description: a white woman, head and shoulders; she wears a brightly coloured patterned shirt, and is looking into the camera, smiling widely

About Amielle Christopherson

Amielle is a freelance writer with too many interests to write about any one thing. She's written about ethical consumerism, small businesses (with a focus on makers), mental health, social justice, and the arts in their many varied and wide ranging forms. Over the years, she's taken crochet, beading, knitting, and painting classes, the results of which are scattered around her house, with the intention of "giving it another go" sometime soon.

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