Threading the Spirit Bead

Beadwork for these three Métis artists is more than art — it connects them to their culture, identity, and ancestors.

This image shows a beaded flower that has blue and red petals and a yellow and orange middle. The large flower is surrounded by green leaves and smaller, colourful flowers that is sewed on a black piece of fabric.

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Beading is an inter-generational cultural practice that helps Indigenous Peoples connect and reconnect with their heritage. It is an act of joyful resistance against centuries of oppression and genocide.

Here are the stories of three Métis beadworkers from Manitoba — Melanie Gamache, Claire Johnston, and Jennine Krauchi — who share how beadwork has shaped their identities and their relationships with their ancestors, families, and communities.

Melanie Gamache, a Francophone Manitoban Métis beadwork artist, first learned how to two-needle bead around a kitchen table. 

Two-needle beading takes time for people to understand, Gamache says. She holds a needle with a thread of beads in her left hand while her right hand uses the second needle to tack the beads onto her project. 

The one-needle method consists of threading a string of beads and tacking them down at the same time. 

“A lot of people are scared of the two-needle beading and I was like, ‘Don’t be scared of it. It’s just another thing to try and learn,” she says.

Gamache grew up in Laurier, Manitoba and lives on a three-acre property in Ste. Genevieve, Manitoba, roughly 53 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. 

In winter 2014, her friend was visiting from Churchill and taught her the basics of Métis beadwork. For the next year, Gamache beaded circles on random pieces of leather or fabric to perfect her technique until she could bead the traditional five-petal flower design.

The opportunity to learn beading came when she was experiencing depression and felt angry with life, Gamache says. 

“There’s always a reason everything happens. Sometimes we just don’t know what it is until years later, and sometimes we never know,” she says. “I think it’s just finding something that can ground you and that you can connect with … and for me, it was beadwork.”

Learning to bead changed her life and inspired her to create her business, Borealis Beading.

She began reading books about Indigenous culture and found there are many references to Indigenous Peoples using beadwork as art therapy. She says this feels validating as she continues to reflect on her experiences and deepen her understanding of her Métis heritage. 

“Although there were no beaders that I know of in my family, it still connected me to my family because it made me look more into the history and culture,” she says. 

Gamache says it doesn’t matter if the dishes aren’t done, the lawn isn’t mowed, or there’s dog fur all over the house — she has “a need to bead.”

“Once I learned how to do the basics, I wanted to learn more,” she says. “I wanted to learn what I call are the hidden stories behind the beadwork.”

The Flower Beadwork People

During the 19th century, the Métis developed patterns that combined First Nations beadwork with the silk floral embroidery from the French-Canadian nuns working in the Roman Catholic mission schools, according to an article by the Manitoba Métis Federation

They used the First Nations porcupine quillwork designs and silk embroidery to create their own style of beadwork and became known as the “Flower Beadwork People.”

This style continues to be used today. 

Historically, the Métis would decorate objects and materials that were functional and easy to carry as they moved, Gamache says. 

These included moccasins made of moose, deer, and buffalo hides and mukluks made from caribou and seal skin. 

They decorated gauntlets, which are large mittens that extend to the elbow, vests, gun cases, knife sheaths, and fire bags also known as “octopus” bags, all of which Métis beaders are still making today. These bags have eight legs and are used to hold tobacco, tinder, a personal pipe, and other tools for the land. 

Gamache also says the Métis have always been proud of their horses and dogs, so they decorate items for them to wear such as beaded saddles and tuppies. The term tuppies comes from the French word tapis which means blanket or carpet.

As European settlers colonized the land and the federal government restricted the rights of Indigenous Peoples through the Indian Act, the Métis transitioned to decorating more items inside the home such as window valances, table covers, cushions, and tea cozies, Gamache says. 

The colonization of Indigenous Peoples in what is now called Canada, refers to how European settlers and the Canadian government attempted a cultural genocide of Indigenous Peoples through the Sixties Scoop, residential and day schools, and other oppressive measures such as prohibiting beading practices, ceremonies, wearing regalia, and sharing Oral Traditions and Traditional Knowledge.

Passing on Métis Cultural Traditions & Knowledge

Gamache values sharing her knowledge of the Métis culture as a way to honour her ancestors’ teachings and pass the traditions along. 

When she was learning how to bead a decade ago, she struggled to find people who were teaching beading workshops.

In 2020, she partnered with Eastman Tourism to create what she calls Métis Cultural Learning Experiences, which she hosts on her acreage surrounded by an aspen and oak forest. She prefers using this terminology instead of ‘workshops’ because she’s noticed it makes people look at learning how to bead differently.

“An experience is sharing the culture, sharing more than just an activity,” she says. 

Gamache offers five-hour learning experiences every summer called Perlage: A Métis Voyage where she teaches participants about the evolution of beading, native vegetation traditionally used by the Métis, and beading techniques, all while telling stories. Perlage is the French word for beadwork. 

In March, she launched a new three-hour learning experience called Métis Connections, which includes an interactive presentation where participants can look at Gamache’s beadwork and then make their own small beading project. 

She will be teaching this mobile experience at different schools and at the Manitoba Maple Syrup Festival in April. 

She has taught Métis Cultural Learning Experiences within elementary schools, but she especially enjoys teaching adults because they can pass the knowledge onto their students, friends or relatives, and continue spreading awareness and understanding of the Métis culture. 

It doesn’t matter if a person comes to a beading circle and decides to never bead again, Gamache says. The point is to understand the cultural significance, detail, and effort behind the beadwork, realizing that the artist touches every bead in their piece. 

Creative Ties to Wellness & Healing

Métis Two-Spirit beadwork artist Claire Johnston started working with beads at nine years old when her dad would take her to buy supplies on the weekends.

“Beadwork, once I started, was something I could always come back to that was soothing and regulating and gave me a purpose,” she says.

She would shop at Gale’s Wholesale, which has since permanently closed and Tandy Leather located at 30 Mandalay Dr. in Winnipeg. When she was 11, her dad helped her sell bracelets at community craft sales. 

But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic, when she could access plenty of beadwork programming online, that she was able to learn how to two-needle bead.

Johnston attended an online eight-week beading workshop through the Seven Oaks Métis Council where she fell in love with the cultural practice. She knew it was something she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

“I’m Autistic, so I have special interests and beading just happened to become one of my special interests,” they said. 

Johnston says they are drawn to the sensory aspect of beadwork — the way each tiny bead feels between their fingers, the sound of beads dropping on their workspace, and the site of containers filled with vibrantly coloured beads that line their shelves. 

“I love that I get to put my needle in a spot that’s like a third of a millimetre,” she says while pointing to a specific bead on a set of octopus bag earrings she’s working on for a client. “I love the accuracy of it.”

Johnston makes a variety of things using beadwork such as earrings, mittens, vests, wall pockets, phone cases, notebooks, small bags or purses, and more. She’s been doing commission-based work for over a year. 

Beadwork helps improve her well-being through things like spending time alone, trusting her creative instincts, looking through the Métis archives at the Manitoba Museum, and tracing her ancestry to other artisans in her family. 

Johnston says she can hyper-fixate on a project for hours to the point where she becomes almost annoyed that she must pause to eat or use the washroom. The repetitive movement of beading is meditative and helps soothe her nervous system, especially because she knows what to expect. 

“When I get into that flow state when I’m by myself and I’m in my space, and I’m comfortable, it’s like nothing else in the world exists,” they say. 

Beading with Intention

Beadwork artists often talk about beading with good intentions. Many say they avoid beading when they are feeling any negative emotions because that energy will transfer to their project. 

While some artists choose to refrain from beading when they are going through a hard time, Johnston says experiencing mental illness has not stopped them from working on any projects. Their dad taught them it’s about listening to your mind and body signals for when you should work on something or not.

“I think that sometimes people think if you’re depressed you can’t bead,” she says. “It’s more that when you sit down with a project, you are putting an intention or energy into it that will be received or not by the next person who interacts with that.”

If Johnston feels frustrated or tired, she’ll put the piece away until she has the patience and positive energy to pick it up again. When she sits down to bead, her intention is to enjoy that experience and focus on making beautiful art. 

When Johnston does commission-based work, they take the time to get to know the person they’re beading for by asking them to talk about themselves over a meeting, email, or phone call. Sometimes people will share intimate details about their lives or what a loved one is experiencing. 

Johnston says there is a lot of trust and responsibility in making beadwork for someone else because they will likely feel the energy the artist puts into it when they wear or receive that item.  

“It’s like prayer. I’m focusing on that person, what they’ve shared with me as I’m beading,” Johnston says. “I don’t think about it too much, I just let my spirit go with it.”

When she is working on a project, she doesn’t have any expectations for how it will go. She starts by drawing a floral design while thinking about the client and then adds each colour as she beads. 

“I don’t actually know what it’ll look like until the very end,” they say.

Often the client will receive the beadwork and there ends up being stylistic elements that connect to them that Johnston wasn’t aware of. This speaks to the power and connection of beading with good intentions and following the artistic direction a piece is moving toward, she says. 

For example, Johnston has beaded floral patterns that end up being someone’s favourite flower or colour. If she can deliver someone’s beadwork in person, she loves watching their reaction, especially when the receiver expands on how the beadwork connects to them. 

Ancestors and Ceremony

A big part of Johnston’s beadwork practice is learning about her ancestors and digging into the Manitoba archives to find out how their beadwork looked.

“A lot of the ways I bead and the ways I think about beading are informed by going to ceremony and by the teachings I receive in ceremony,” Johnston says. “I’m always conscious of my ancestors when I’m beading.”

Her apartment is decorated with woodwork that her dad and grandfather specially made for her. These items include a box to hold her medicine bundle, two tool stands, a coffee table, a step stool, and other handmade kitchen accessories. 

For much of their life growing up in Winnipeg, they have felt disconnected from their Métis family. However, she has been communicating and reconnecting with some of her cousins who share an interest in their Métis heritage.

Through family gatherings, storytelling and searching archival information, Johnston has traced her identity back to centuries-old Manitoban artisans and developed a special interest in genealogy. 

In January, she discovered she descends from watercolourist William Richards. He was born in Ontario in 1785, and he is one of the only documented Indigenous Peoples who practised European painting styles but had never been to Europe. 

Johnston says he has four paintings in the Manitoba archives, his most famous one being A man & his wife returning with a load of partridges from their tent. 

During that period, non-Indigenous people such as Hudson’s Bay Company employees, priests, and anthropologists were representing and appropriating Indigenous Peoples through art. Their depictions were inaccurate because the art representing Indigenous cultures and ways of life wasn’t created by Indigenous Peoples and how they view themselves, Johnston says. 

“Hearing those small stories of my ancestors are incredibly meaningful for me and I often ask my ancestors for help — all of my ancestors, not just my Métis ancestors,” she says. 

“I like to acknowledge them — that they know me, that they see me.”

She says it’s fascinating to read these stories and feel that familial connection through time. 

Over the past year, they have been connecting with a cousin in Ontario who has what they think is a beaded band from their great-great grandmother. Because the Indian Act didn’t allow people to participate in cultural practices like beading until 1951, it’s not common for Indigenous Peoples to have their ancestors’ beadwork. 

“It’s so difficult to understand in this world what things would have been like during different periods of time where our beadwork was really, really popular here,” Johnston says. 

They dream of the moment they will finally be able to touch and analyze their great-great grandmother’s beadwork and create a replica. 

 Connecting Through Beads

Jennine Krauchi never thought she would become a world-renowned two-needle Métis beadworker. 

She’s been commissioned to create new and replica beadwork for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Canadian Museum of History, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and museums in Scotland, France, and the United States of America. 

Gamache attended Krauchi’s workshops frequently when she first started beading, and Johnston was one of Krauchi’s mentees in the Mentoring Artists for Women’s Arts 2022/2023 Foundation Mentorship Program. 

Krauchi first started teaching beading workshops at the Métis Resource Centre in the late 90s. She said at that time they were lucky to get enough Métis beadworkers to sit around a kitchen table.

Some Métis people would hide their identity due to internalized shame of Indigeneity and the impacts of colonialism, which prevented them from beading and wearing their artwork, she says.

“Right away if you saw beadwork on somebody … you’d know right away that that person is Métis,” she says, adding that racist people would target them. 

Her mother was born in 1938 and didn’t remember anyone practising beadwork in that decade.

Krauchi says she’s been fortunate to grow up with two parents who taught her to value her culture and pass it on. 

She beaded her first flower – a daisy – in the 60s when she was six or seven while growing up in Winnipeg.

Krauchi moved to Brandon with her parents during the 70s when she was 14. They lived on a five-acre piece of land in a tiny cabin with no running water. 

She remembers her father teaching her to sew. He would make jackets, vests, moccasins, mukluks, and other garments while her mother would sit in a chair, adding floral beadwork to each piece. They would sell these items in their store. 

When her father died in 1991, Krauchi moved back to Winnipeg and was still taking custom sewing orders from clientele in Brandon. However, she had a renewed interest and love for beading, which led her to begin teaching others.  

“Beadworkers will sit there for hours and it’s always one more leaf or one more stem and it’s connecting with our ancestors,” she says.

“It teaches you humility, it teaches you to get grounded … but amongst all that, it got to be a passion. It got to be something that was more than just sitting there and doing beadwork,” Krauchi says. 

While beading has become a form of therapy for her over the years, Krauchi says she understands this more since her mother died on Dec. 19, 2023.

Before she died, Krauchi and her mother would do many beaded pieces together — their last one being a 26-foot tall octopus bag they worked on during the summer of 2014. It was displayed at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in 2016. 

As her mother got older and became sick, she could no longer bead with her daughter. Krauchi says there were times when her mother would be sleeping in another room while Krauchi beaded on the couch, yet she still felt like her mother was beading right beside her. 

Going through her mother’s belongings has been emotional, Krauchi says as she wipes tears from her eyes. She couldn’t bring herself to bead again until mid-January. 

“To me, it relaxes me. The only time I get anxious is when I have to do something else,” she says. 

Beadwork is a connection to the land, flowers, trees, and animals. Krauchi says Indigenous Peoples always have a subconscious connection with the land and what it can provide for them. 

Through her practice, she’s been heavily influenced by nature and the old beadwork at the Manitoba Museum. She loves looking at the colours, materials, and patterns the Métis were using during different periods of time. 

“You saw the connections between the patterns of the French, and then what we saw in nature and combining those two to make our style, which is Métis style with flowers and little vines and leaves,” she says. 

“The amount of beadwork that was being done in the 1800s and early 1900s was unbelievable.”

Seed beads are made of glass and originate from Venice, Italy. They range in size from as tiny as 0.9 millimetres (size 22) to 3.3 millimetres (size 6), as noted in a size guide by Big Bead Little Bead.

To this day, she uses antique beads that feature rare colours such as rose-coloured “white hearts” — a red bead with a white centre — along with pumpkin and greasy blue.

“They are almost impossible to get now,” she says.

White hearts and greasy blue are her favourites and she uses these colours the most in her beadwork.

“The reason they call it greasy is because it almost looks like somebody handled them with greasy hands and got some kind of coating on them, but it’s just the colour of the glass.”

Threading the Spirit Bead

Krauchi says one of the ways beading grounds her is through threading a spirit bead. This bead is about humility, and it’s meant to remind people that they aren’t better or less than anybody else. 

A spirit bead is a different colour that stands out from the rest of the project, and it’s hidden in a place only the artisan or receiver of the gift knows. 

“Some people ask me, ‘Well, do you put that in there all the time?’ and I say, ‘Well, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. It’s up to you to find it.’”

The spirit bead is also about healing. 

“There’s times when I have done beadwork for a project, or a gallery and I have maybe ran into a person that is having a very difficult time, and I’ll ask them to put in that spirit bead.”

They can pick the colour and exactly where they want to place it, she says. 

“Sometimes it’s like one will slip on there whether you know it or not … A special little bead.”

Rather than beading around a kitchen table, like many of her ancestors did, Krauchi finds comfort stringing and tacking her beads from the warmth of her bed. She likes being able to stretch her legs while sewing on her lap.

Krauchi took a year-long break from teaching workshops while she took care of her mother, but she is looking forward to teaching new students again and meeting people who have a passion and appreciation for the art form.

In May, she will be attending a beadwork symposium for the exhibit Radical Stitch at the National Gallery of Canada, located in Ottawa. Her piece The Lady featuring a beaded coat, fire bag muff, and hat is a part of the exhibition and it has been shown in galleries in Regina, Hamilton, and Thunder Bay.

Radical Stitch was created in 2019 by three Indigenous women. According to a CBC News article published in February 2023, Radical Stitch intertwines the idea that surviving as an Indigenous person is a “radical act” and the exhibition is a way of showing “radical love.”

While Krauchi is excited to attend the symposium and possibly teach a workshop to many beaders, having her work as a part of a museum exhibit reminds her of how historical beadwork in museums often hasn’t credited the artists.

“Nobody even knows who and when they had done it. And that’s a sad thing to think that these women, they’re not going to be acknowledged in that way,” she says.

Krauchi recognizes beading as a fine art. She is amazed by the ways beading has evolved from a style that was contemporary centuries ago to the patterns that artists are creating now.

“Everybody’s going in different directions too, which is great because I think there’s room for everybody to do their beadwork and to do their own styles.”

Krauchi says she probably has 10 more years where she will have the mobility to bead with her hands, but until then, she looks forward to beading every day.

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Tessa Adamski

Tessa (she/her) cares deeply about people and is a social justice advocate within marginalized communities. Tessa loves to dance, meditate, and enjoy a good book in the sun. She hopes to write her own memoir one day.
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