By Nadia Kurd
Scholar Sherry Farrell Racette notes that given the aggressive history of European colonialism in Canada and the US, a number of traditional Indigenous arts have survived because individuals and families had carried out cultural practices covertly. “The simple act of retaining and protecting knowledge was political,” writes Farrell Racette, “the materials themselves often believed to be living and potent.”[i]
For Gitxsan/Nisga’a artist Shawna Davis (also known as Hayatsgan), her beading practice followed a slightly different trajectory and began shortly after seeing the beadwork that adorned her partner’s home in 2014. Davis notes that her partner’s community of Old Crow, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation “is a place where beadwork is life, and historically, a sign of wealth” and that he “was surrounded by it: moccasins, his baby belt beaded by his late Sitsuu Ellen Bruce hung in his apartment, medicine pouches. I had never really seen beadwork like this before.”[ii] Such beadwork practices were uncommon in her traditional territory of the Gitx̱san and Nisg̱a’a Nations as she was accustomed to the unique aesthetic characteristics of Indigenous west coast visual culture, which is well known for its form lines, button blankets, woodcarvings, and cedar weavings.
Davis’s skills were first developed when she participated in a workshop hosted by the ReMatriate Collective in 2017. Since then, she has been creating vibrant beaded works that are primarily meant for personal adornment. As a Gitxsan/Nisga’a person and non-traditional beader, Davis is conscientious about her practice and the implications of using distinct patterns and processes, explaining, “I understand the significance of coming from a place. To come from a place means that your sovereignty rests in your land, your language, your laws, and your art.”[iii] Each design that Davis creates is inspired by the work of other Indigenous womxn, her family, and the land, as well as the “Li’liget (our feast hall) and all of its teachings of our laws, governance and knowledge systems that we have practiced since time immemorial.”[iv]
The process to create each work may take days to develop and finish. Beads are fastened to felt—which is thick enough so that it provides a strong base to stabilize the beads and other items such as porcupine quills, and abalone buttons. Each object features an array of bead colours and sizes. Sometimes these designs are also stitched directly on animal hide, quilting interface or fabric, which can contrast with and change the overall composition of the beadwork design. Once the design is fully beaded and the edges of the item are complete, the item may be gifted, traded or sold online.
For the past year, Davis has been working on a much larger and more personal endeavor. She has been steadily creating objects for her upcoming wedding, which will include various items for the wedding party, herself and her groom. Not simply decorative in nature, Davis says that some of these items “will be gifted according to our clan system, laws, and protocols.”[v]
Another long-term beadwork project will include a more pointed examination of the politics and policies that continue to shape the Canadian settler state. Davis intends to make works that focus on how the government has exercised control over the lives of Indigenous people and its exploitative attitude towards natural resources, land, and agreements.
Currently living as an uninvited guest on Unceded Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh and Squamish homelands, Davis continues to work as an artist full-time. For her, the process of beading is much of a creative act as it is a deeply personal one. “Beadwork is medicine to me, a strong medicine,” writes Davis, “it gives me the ability to learn patience, discipline, focus, and perseverance.”[vi]
To see more of Shawna Davis’s artwork, follow her on Instagram @strikingstick
Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She occasionally tweets at @nadia_kurd
[i] Sherry Farrell Racette, “Tuft Life: Stitching Sovereignty in Contemporary Indigenous Art,” Art Journal, 76:6, 114-123. 2017.
[ii] Artist correspondence, April 2019.