I Must Share My Gift for It to Grow

20 January 2021
Bookmark This (0)

Sponsored in part by:

Ad for the book Gathering Colour, featuring the book cover and the words, "Use natural pigments to make dyes, inks & paints from the world around you." A button at the bottom says, "Buy now."

As an Anishinaabe Ojibway kwe (woman) I have been taught that we need to live by sharing our gifts. One of the examples that our Elders use is the beaver. This animal’s teeth will constantly grow during its lifetime. If the beaver does not use its gift of cutting down wood, the teeth will prevent it from eating and it could die. My gift is beading, and I practice the Anishinaabe philosophy of Mino-Biimaadiziwin, or living the good life. In line with this life philosophy I must share my gift for it to grow. I will teach beading to anybody that wants to learn, regardless of their background. Beading is something meant to be shared. Beading and laughing around a table will make your heart sing.

Teaching beading is one of my pleasures in life. 

When a beading student of mine becomes inspired after learning a new art form, I also feel inspired. My personal beadwork journey began when I was a “tween,” that time between being a child and a teenager.  Beading was taught to me by my sister, who had learned it from our auntie.

My background is diverse—my father was Ojibway, Lac Seul Band, from Red Lake, Ontario, and my mother was a German Mennonite from America. Beading is something my mother did not participate in, but she adored it and encouraged my exploration of the art form. My mother thought that it was not her place to learn beadwork, as it was not part of her culture. Without realizing it, she had made me aware of the concept of cultural appropriation before the term emerged in the 1980s.

My parents have since passed on to the Spirit World, but cultural appropriation comes up frequently. Often at a beading workshop I will encounter a new beader who announces that they are not Indigenous. Now I do NOT speak for all Indigenous people, but I will respond that Indigenous people do not own the practice of beading. Yes, beading is an important part of Indigenous culture. Yes, Indigenous people have been beading since long before European contact. Indigenous beadwork is an important aspect of our cultural expression. However, most of the world’s cultures use beads. We are all Homo sapiens and use what is available to us to decorate and adorn ourselves and our loved ones. Google “beadwork” and you will find pieces from Africa, South America, Asia, Europe…we all love to bead!

Malinda Gray Medallion

There is the cultural appropriation elephant in the room, but if you are learning beadwork and are non-Indigenous, be respectful. Do not learn beadwork and then sell what you make or announce that you make Indigenous beadwork. That is exploitation and it is misleading, which falls under cultural appropriation. If taking an Indigenous beadwork class, you might want to inquire if you are taking the place of an Indigenous person who may be trying to reconnect to their culture. Often, conferences that have beading or quilling classes offer sponsorship for an Indigenous person to attend. If you have the resources, sponsoring is a great way to be an ally.

Another way to be an ally is to buy Indigenous beadwork! Regardless of whether you see something at a powwow or a gift shop, purchasing helps the bead artist financially. You can also follow Indigenous artists on Instagram and purchase directly from them. There are fantastic pieces for sale on social media right now. When I notice Indigenous beadwork on a person in public, it is almost impossible for me to resist asking about the piece. Even more exciting? If the person knows who the artist is and what First Nations they hail from. Do not worry that you are buying a sacred pattern or a spiritual piece—most Indigenous beaders refuse to sell these at powwows or to third parties.

Learning beadwork techniques is a way that we can share our cultures and creativity. One way that beaders share is by posting technique videos on YouTube or other outlets. Try not to limit yourself to just Indigenous beaders; I follow beaders from Russia, Italy, and worldwide. I might not understand their speech, but I understand the bead language.

Click through for a list of additional resources: history, news, and links to beading artists.

Remember that not all Indigenous beaders think or feel the way I do.  For some who have suffered assimilation via the Residential School system and ongoing colonization, they may feel that beading is one of the few things that they still own and control. Recognize their hurt, be respectful, and move on. I, myself, have been denied learning beading techniques by some Indigenous beading mentors because it was not my place and/or the right time. I have come to accept that the techniques come into my life when I am ready.

We are all on this planet together and our society becomes more complex through globalization. Creating something from a couple grams of beads and some thread is a wonderful way to simplify your day. If you want to learn beadwork, the beading world is waiting for you. Just be prepared to share your gift so the art form continues to thrive. Miigwech!

Malinda Gray Hoop Earrings

All photo credits Malinda Gray. Find more of her work on her Instagram account and Facebook page.

Copyright © Malinda Gray except as indicated.
Malinda Gray Head Shot

About Malinda Gray

Malinda Gray, M.A., is an Indigenous Studies PhD Candidate at Trent University, where she also facilitates beading workshops for the First Peoples House of Learning. She lives in Peterborough, ON with her husband, three sons, and her cat, Hazel.

Related Posts

Circular by Design: Slow Fashion by Anne Mulaire

Circular by Design: Slow Fashion by Anne Mulaire

Anishinaabe/French Métis fashion designer Anne Mulaire is part of an innovative movement of clothiers committed to building a slow, circular Canadian fashion industry. Inspired by teachings passed down through seven generations of her family, she creates garments that reflect her deeply held family and personal beliefs.

Get 10% off!

Join our mailing list to get special Studio Membership pricing! PLUS hear about new Digits & Threads content and community news.

Subscription success! Well done, you.