Profiles On Practice: Shawna Davis

NK: Hello, my name is Nadia Kurd and I’m the host of Profiles on Practice, a podcast that examines the life and work of women artists of color in Canada.

SD: My English given name is Shawna Davis and my hereditary Gitksan name is Hayatsgan, which translates to Striking Stick and that’s the name I’ve decided to place in front of my beading practice. My father clan is Nisga’a, and the Nisga’a nation is a neighboring nation to the Gitksan and that’s where my sisters and I spent our childhood in the small community of Gitlaamex.

I come to you today from unceded Coast Salish territories, in so-called British Columbia. So, I would like to say T’ooyaxsiy’ N’isim’ to the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations for having me and my family here as uninvited guests and occupiers of their incredibly beautiful, powerful homelands and waters.

NK: Can you tell me about how you came to beading?

SD: I’ve been beating for three years now. I learned to bead once I attended a beading workshop hosted by ReMatriate. And if you aren’t familiar with ReMatriate, they are an incredibly powerful collective of Indigenous women, Two-spirit, and queer, and they focus on the strength and beauty that we, as the matriarchs and matriarchs in training, what we really contribute to our communities and to our families and our nations. So, they focus on the positivity that we as a collective, as Indigenous women, Two-spirit and queer, what we, what we hold up, how we hold up our people.

So, it’s a beautiful collective and I was very honored and to learn to bead from them. My teacher was Tsēma, she is a Tahltan woman and she learned to bead from her grandmother. In that workshop, we beat it around a ReMatriate patch. So, she taught us how to do the Pico edge. So how to finish a project. And very briefly in that workshop, she also taught us the flat stitch.

So that was it, I was completely obsessed. And I just remember wanting to go to the bead store that moment, but I had to wait until the next day. So, I went the very next day. I bought all of the basic supplies that I needed, and I’ve been pretty much beading every single day since. So that is the beginning of my bead journey and it brings me here with you today, so ha’miya.

NK: Design plays an important role in beadwork art. Can you tell me more about how you come up with your designs and how do you go about creating a work of art?

SD: There’s no one set process that I follow, I feel. Sometimes it comes really quickly and sometimes it’ll be months and months of just conceptualizing and it just developing in my mind, and then taking a while to actually reach my fingers, and my hands, and to be tangible. A lot of my designs stem from memory, from childhood memories, from strong connections to my land— to my land—to the land and the culture that I grew up in.

Yeah so, a lot of land-based design. I focus on again, the beauty that exists within our culture, I focus on the beauty of the land. A lot of florals, berries are a strong memory and a strong connection for me, the salmon, the water. Yeah, I would say most of it is land-based. I do sketch out my designs and, you know, that was intimidating for me at first because I never really considered myself an artist. I considered myself to be a creative person. You know, and I think that my path to becoming an artist really, I think back to my five-year-old self being invited into my grandmother’s kitchen and her just nurturing that side of me to be family-centric and to really like food. Food is a central part of, I would say, everyone’s culture. Food is a strong, strong part of who you are and where you come from and that is a big part of the story. And so that was a big part of my life. I ended up becoming a chef. I ended up going to culinary school, which was just wild for me. I mean, I enjoyed cooking all of the way through. I enjoyed, just being creative in that way. And again, even though I studied culinary arts, it has the word arts in it, I still did not consider myself an artist. It was just interesting to me to look back on my path and look at how my hands just kind of always led the way. When you learn culinary arts, you learn precision, you learn knife skills, and I think that that really led me into beadwork with ease.

And I think of where I am in my journey and my age, essentially, just how, because beadwork, the number one thing that you need is patience. You need patience over everything else to understand and to work with beads, the learning process is extremely frustrating. It can stop you in your tracks and really challenge you and your personal, just, you know, if there’s something that you need to learn in your life, beadwork will teach you it in some form or another.

I use a stitch that I don’t think is common. I know that generational beaders are two needle, I’m self-taught. So, after I attended that workshop and I really wanted to learn how to bead I Youtubed, I used YouTube tutorials, which is quite common as well. There’s a lot of self-taught beaders and that is, that is how I taught myself to bead. And so, I use a one needle, one thread, stitch approach. And so, I started out using two beads at a time. So, I would pick up two beads and go through the first that lead bead, I’d come back up through that first lead bead. It was great but it didn’t give me the precision that I wanted. So now, every time I bead it’s one bead at a time. So, I’ll pick up one bead, I’ll place it, and I’ll stitch it down, and I will do that over and over and over. And it’s like thousands of beads, you know, that you can just be doing this thousands and thousands of times over and over again.

NK: I think beadwork really slows one down and shifts one’s focus. Is this something that you also feel?

SD: Absolutely. Beadwork slows the entire world down. It makes it still for you. There are times where it just takes you, it brings you to another place and a lot of beaters will agree that it is a strong, strong medicine, you’re right. This world does not allow you any time, no time to think. No time to sit, no time to be still, no time to just process. And so, beadwork has really countered all of that for me and it’s allowed me to be still. And it’s allowed me to go deep, deep inside of myself and to address a lot of things that I haven’t had a chance to address yet, I haven’t had a chance to process. And as an Indigenous woman, it turns out that that is a lot. There is a lot to process there. There is a lot of trauma, there’s a lot of intergenerational trauma and, you know, to be forced to reckon with that, to be forced, to deal with that in order to be a better functioning person while learning about the history while learning about what has truly happened to your people and, you know, the atrocity, the genocide, the displacement, just everything that was taken from you. And you didn’t know as you grew through this place, this so-called place of “Canada.” As you grew, and you knew you felt it, you could feel that something wasn’t quite right here, you always felt out of place. You always felt just really unsure. As you learn about it, it just opens a flood gate. Everything starts to make more sense to you, your family, your community, everything that you were surrounded by. I think it’s why I choose to focus on the beauty and the love that exists because yes, that is still such a strong representation of who I am and where I come from. But just as strong and just as present is the trauma and the ongoing colonization and assimilation of my people.

So, I think subconsciously as a survival mechanism, possibly as a defense mechanism, I choose to focus on yeah, the good things, because we are forced to deal with these, um, these horrifying acts, every single day, it’s quite relentless and you can drown really easily. Yeah. I mean, if you don’t understand if you are just surviving and coping, which is fine too, which I, you know, I’ve done that for most of my life. The self-harm that I’ve inflicted on myself because I did not understand my trauma. I did not understand a lot of, you know, the truths. You do things and you don’t know why, and that’s okay because you’re surviving, you’re making it through.

NK: I want to come back to beadwork designs for a little bit. I think many, though not all, designs are life-affirming. And what I mean by this is that many makers are not only looking at plants for designs, but also considering their uses. Beadwork focuses our attention to this knowledge. What are some of your thoughts?

SD: For sure. I’ve come to learn beadwork as storytelling and as Indigenous people, we hold 10, 20,000-year-old oral history. And just because it hasn’t been written down, just because it hasn’t been recorded it’s really been undermined by colonial history, which has been, which has been written, which has been placed on paper by old white racist men who decided what history was going to be.

And so, bead work in itself existing within that context and within that narrative just kind of stops you and allows you to try to learn, try to open those pathways to different ways of thinking. And, you know, I think this will lead me, this always leads me into cultural appropriation in where beadwork is one form, it’s one art form. It’s spans across turtle island and it has been here for a long, long time. And it not the only form of storytelling is not the only artwork I come from nations. Who tells stories through formline. So formline is a very disciplined art form and I think of formline as its own voice.

And, you know, going back to my matrilineal lineage, me being Eagle, me being La’skik, which is Eagle clan. I’m going to try and briefly describe a very complex system within Gitksan and this society. So, I am one person I’m Eagle clan. I am born from my mother. She was Eagle. She was born from her mother. She was Eagle. She was born from her mother. She was Eagle and on and on and on and on it goes back to the beginning, since time immemorial. And I gave birth to my daughter she’s Eagle and to my son, and I’m a bit uncomfortable gendering them both because we are a non-gender conforming family. But you know, in this case, I will call them son and daughter.

Because we are matriarchy, you are who your mother is. And so, my daughter, when and if she chooses to have children, they will be Eagles. But my son, because he doesn’t have the ability, the capability of having children, whoever he chooses to be with, they will follow under his partners. And even if they’re non-Indigenous or they don’t belong to a clan, first of all, there’s four clans: Lax skiik, Lax gibuu, Gisgaast and Ganata. La’skik is Eagle. Lax gibuu is Wolf, Gisgaast is Fireweed/Killer whale, and Ganata is Raven/Frog. And so those four clans are how we identify, it’s how we organize. I consider everyone who is Eagle as my brothers and sisters. We are clan brothers and sisters. So, it is a part of our law. It is against the law to be with another Eagle. So, if I chose a partner who was an Eagle— lawbreaking. That is considered incest. And so even if someone across Turtle Island was an Eagle, I still consider them my brother and sister, even though, you know, by blood, essentially, we’re not related.

If we were to take, you know, some sort of colonial test, it would say that technically we’re not related, but by Indigenous law and Indigenous kinship, we are. I just so happen to choose a partner who is Gwich’in, they held clan ships as well, and he is a Wolf and so is my father. So, my father clan is Wolf and my children’s father clan is Wolf as well. And the responsibilities and duty of the father clan within the matrilineal society is to care for the children from birth until death. And it’s your responsibility to be a large presence through their growth and through very momentous occasions.

So, for instance, recently, my husband and I got married. We had a traditional ceremony on our traditional territory on our La’git, which is our it’s our homeland, it’s our Eagle territory, within Gitksan within the Gitksan nation, there are 60 plus different chief’s names, a part of every, okay. Within this structure, within the clan system, there are houses or wilks. So, there’s multiple houses within those four clans. When I introduced myself, I mentioned I belong to Wilksilaks so that is the house of Wilksilaks and he is my maternal uncle, my mother’s oldest brother. His name was passed down to him by his maternal uncle. And so, the names are passed down through the Matri-line.

So, his name is attached, and it belongs to many territories within the Gitksan nation and they are functioning you know, whether they’re utilized for hunting or fishing or gathering, they are hereditary lands and they belong to the name. So, when he passes, the name gets passed down and it’s always living, it’s always alive. There’s so many duties and responsibilities that come with carrying those names and our laws are enacted within the feast hall. So, when we attend feasts, we carry out the protocols that have been carried out since time immemorial. And we call witnesses, we call witnesses into the feast hall to witness these protocols, being enacted, to witness these laws being upheld, and we pay them with gifts. We pay them with food, we feed them. Feasts are the central part of our laws. It takes a lifetime to really grasp and understand. And I, even though I do hold knowledge, I feel like I hold very, very little. A lot has been interrupted for me, um, throughout my lifetime. And my mother holds a lot of knowledge that she learned from her mother, and so on and so on. And so that’s where disconnection comes into play and where me being removed from my community and from my family structure for 20-plus years of my life, where that’s 28 years of learning that it plays a huge part. And that’s where a lot, a lot of the dysfunction, comes into play. I mean related to land, related to colonialism, related to Canada and industry and, you know, forestry and hydro highways, and CN rail, all of these, just big, big corporations who have really utilized genocide and the removal of Indigenous people to their ultimate advantage to gain all of that wealth, to gain all of that power, and to still, to this day, utilize and to the maximum. You know, throw out all of that power our way. If we say no, like this is our land, this has been held, here’s our system here is, you know. And it’s been, it’s been taken to court by the Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en back in the eighties and nineties and all the way to the Supreme court rights and title and you know, and still, and that case is Delta Moke versus BC. And that is still not upheld, they’re still, you know, bulldozing into our our communities essentially and because CN rail barrels right through our, my home community Gitaga, it just goes right through it, not around it. The interruption is very prevalent, it’s ever present and it’s so normalized.

We have the incredible privilege of going to fish camp every summer. So, our traditional fishing hole and CN rail passes through that place. The traffic has increased. I’d say since I started returning, which was about five years ago, we’d see a train, maybe three, five times a day. And now I’d say they’re like every hour or two and it is loud. It’s just this massive noise pollution, shakes the land, and I just think, you know, poor fish, poor animals, poor eagles, who nest just above our fish camp. There’s just this entire ecosystem that is just never considered. Yeah. So, major, major issues caused for Indigenous people by theft of land and resources. Ongoing, continuous, has never stopped.

I know what I was talking about. I was talking about cultural appropriation. I was talking about voice. I was talking about storytelling. So, within these houses, within these clans are crests, formline, artwork. And these crests belong. We have crests. We have designs that belong to Wilksilaks. They say who we are, where we come from and they carry that 20,000-year-oral history within those designs, they tell that story and nobody is allowed to use it without permission. You take it, you’re breaking the law. You take it and you use it because with those crests, with our oral history comes stories and songs that belong and come from those lands. And they are only to be used by Wilksilaks.

They’re only to be told and sung by members of Wilksilaks. So, if you take that crest, you take that design you then, well, number one, you break the law, but you then take those stories and those songs and that voice. And you tell it wrong. You know, you water it down, you take that power.

And when we speak to cultural appropriation, which is very new to me, it’s new to a lot of people because how can you expect myself as an Indigenous person who didn’t even truly understand, you know, where I grew up, which was on reserve. I didn’t know a reserve was a reserve. It was just my world as a child. I didn’t know that we were forced there. I didn’t know that my people were, you know, starved into submission. I didn’t know we were held at gunpoint. I, you know, didn’t know that we were hunted on our own lands and then placed in these prisons essentially, which were reserves. I didn’t understand status. I didn’t understand the Indian act. I didn’t understand holding a status card and this number that was placed on me told Canada that I was essentially Indian in their eyes and they held and continue to hold all of this power over every single movement in my life, essentially. Indigenous people just trying to survive that. You know, like if someone’s taking our artwork and copying it and selling it, and profiting off of it, you know, there’s so many people who are like, “don’t you have bigger things to worry about?” Uh, yeah, we do. We have a lot of things to worry about, but it is all connected. It is all strongly connected and just respect that, respect that voice.

NK: Is there anything else you wanted to add to our conversation today?

SD: I would really like to thank my community for lifting me up for inviting me in, encouraging me. They’re a huge part of my practice as well. I would not have been able to have the confidence really to do what I do, day in and day out if it wasn’t for them, you know, constantly cheering me on and supporting me. It takes someone to take their hard-earned money and purchase your work so that you can continue to do what you do. And that is huge, that is huge for me. I just, I feel very honored to be a part of this community. And yeah, some really good, some really strong things are happening within it. And I’m very proud to be a small part of it. Ha’miya. Thank you, Nadia.

NK: Thank you to my guests, Shawna Davis and podcast collaborator, Femme Art Review, audio engineering by Riaz Mehmood, and music by Kevin MacLeod. The Profiles on Practice Podcast was generously supported by the Canada Council for the arts through the Digital Originals initiative.