Intergenerational sharing ensures traditions flourish, links Indigenous artists to their ancestors.
Sabrina Williams is grateful to both her grandmothers, whom she affectionately calls Kokum (Cree for grandmother). They not only taught her the beadwork and sewing that gives her a meaningful vocation, they instilled a love of tradition she passes along to her daughter today.
But the knowledge the Edmonton artisan learned didn’t come without a dark side, as her parents were residential school survivors who became disconnected from their people’s ways.
“My parents lost most of their Indigenous identities and traditions. They are now coming back to the red road of healing and reconnecting,” said Williams, whose roots are Cree, Tahltan and Tlingit. “I was so thankful they let me make such a beautiful connection with my kokums, who taught me what my parents lost.”
Sabrina and her daughter Shelby, 12, are members of the Indigenous Arts Market Collective (I.A.M. Collective), an Edmonton organization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists. Members not only offer locally made Indigenous art and handcrafted items, they embody a spirit of entrepreneurship while sharing their culture with the world.
“We started in 2018, to break down barriers that were preventing Indigenous artists from participating in Edmonton’s local markets,” said Lorrie Lawrence, I.A.M. executive director and a founding member.
“We want to get as many youths to work in these traditional arts as possible. The elders who carry on with these traditions, it’s important for us to make sure they’re heard by the youth.”
Williams was taught skills such as quilt making and ribbon skirts by her kokum at Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and learned beadwork, sweetgrass weaving and traditional medicine from her kokum in northern Saskatchewan.
“She taught me since I was six. Thirty-three years later I’m still embracing my matriarchs, my kokums’ sacred knowledge. And I am proud I am able to teach my daughter,” said Williams about daughter Shelby, who got an eye for acrylic painting and drawing after learning beadwork at age eight.
“She created the design for our orange shirt which was inspired by her grandparents, who attended residential schools. She also created MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) artwork, which was unfortunately inspired by the murder of my younger sister.”
Williams and Shelby now make a range of items, from quilts and handbags to Cree regalia and cedar hats, along with soaps, lotions and medicine oils using sage, sweetgrass and red cedar.
Frances Whitford, a Métis artisan and I.A.M. director, learned to work with moosehide and fur watching her Métis grandmother in Anzac, south of Fort McMurray. She recalls her grandfather’s trapline as a source of materials that were turned into mukluks and jackets.
“In our culture, you’re mainly taught by watching. All the things my grandmother would do, tanning hides, beadwork, the trapline; was part of my everyday life,” said Whitford.
Her brother and cousin have now stepped into their grandfather’s shoes, supplying furs and hide for her Beadwork & Bannock business, which was inspired by the family’s desire to preserve their Métis heritage.
“I didn’t realize I was taught something very special to my culture. It wasn’t until my grandmother passed away, that I realized it would be lost,” said Whitford.
A member of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation of northern Manitoba, I.A.M. director James Fox recalls wanting to connect to his Cree heritage, so in 2017, he joined Indigenous craft classes at the Edmonton library. From there it was beading lessons at the Native Friendship Centre, and his current Cree-ations now range from rawhide rattles and fish scale art to caribou hair tufting and leather crafts.
“When I started doing beadwork I wanted to keep the traditions, but I always add a modern twist,” said Fox.
Creations by members of the collective are available at the Downtown Farmers Market in Edmonton, and at Fort Edmonton Park in the summer.
“It’s very important to us, promoting authentic Indigenous arts,” Whitford said. “The number of beautiful artists is amazing.”
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