Cover Image Source: CBC
Krista Leddy is a proud Métis woman. She is an artist, a mom and a prolific Métis beader whose beadwork has been showcased in museums and the Canadian Geographic. On September 28th, 2021 Krista Leddy sat down with me to have a Q&A on Métis Beadwork and Culture.
Questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
*Note: Kookum is the Michif/Cree word for Grandmother
**DG represents questions I asked, and KL represents her answers.
Image Source: Beaded portrait of Louis Riel by Krista Leddy featured in the Canadian Geographic
DG: Could you please introduce yourself and explain how you are involved with Métis culture?
KL: My name is Krista Leddy. I’m a proud Métis woman. I am an artist. I’m a mom. I have been very fortunate because I was raised in my culture and I was exposed to different traditional arts pretty early on in my life.
So when I was little, I remember going to my Kookum‘s house. I was probably about seven or eight and she had some of her friends there, some aunties, and they would try to expose me to whatever [traditional cultural practices as] they could. I think partly to keep me busy, but also just sharing that knowledge, right?
And my very first time beading was [when my Kookum said]: “My girl, thread my needle.” That was pretty much it: threading a lot of needles, [getting] lots of practice. It was really great to kind of see how [beadwork] was important to our identity, because my Kookum was always saying: “Be proud of who you are. We are Métis. Be proud.” So that was always instilled in me.
And being surrounded and being gifted things with beadwork on them and seeing that when I go to gatherings and in my own family was really important. It really kind of set that foundation for me to learn. I didn’t really understand how important [beading] was until I started having my own kids. So when my first daughter was born it was like this wake up call because I [know] who I am. I know [what] my culture is. I know the stories. But now I had to actually pass it on. And [it made me realize] just how precious that [cultural] knowledge is.
So I really started to pick up on the traditions and the stories and listening to my Kookum and listening to my aunties and my uncles and all the different people in the community and finding opportunities to learn more. [I was also finding] opportunities to expose my kids to more [cultural knowledge.]
For me though, getting into beadwork [more extensively] didn’t happen until my kids were quite a bit older because beadwork is hard to do with little kids around. I mean, there’s sharp scissors and needles that’s never good to have around little ones. So it was when they were a little older and I felt a real need to express myself is when I really got back into beadwork.
So being exposed when you’re little and then remembering all these things and picking up the needle and thread and the beads and starting again. And I mean, it wasn’t just spontaneous. It was also meeting people in the community that were already practicing those arts and reconnecting with the stories of that, and that was a really important piece.
DG: So I have read that Métis people were referred to as the “flower beadwork people” by other Indigenous people. Can you explain the significance of that nickname?
KL: Sure. Well, part of it is because of how we express ourselves through our art, and it [has a very organic theme.] [Flowers, plants, even animals are featured a lot in Metis art.] There have been lots of stories about, like in St. Boniface, the Métis women being exposed to embroidery from the nuns there who are teaching them and they were learning floral embroidery and then it translated into beadwork.
We are unique because we are born of two very different cultures. So we have those European fur traders and we have those First Nation women that those European fur traders met. And I should say, just being mixed does not make you Métis. We have our own sense of culture, identity, language, even though just our worldview is different from our First Nation cousins and is different from our European cousins. So our culture takes everything—those elements of culture, language, traditions and understanding from those fur trader Grandfathers and cultures, languages, traditions and ways of understanding and connection to the world here and the ways of survival from our First Nation Grandmothers—and we put it all together in its own separate form of culture. [Métis culture] is like a jewel and you see facets and those facets reflect those different Grandmother and Grandfather teachings. But the jewel itself is its own beautiful piece, and that’s who we are.
So our art—those floral designs are definitely a reflection of some of that European tradition—but also that understanding of how we’re connected in the world around us and understanding the plants and the animals that give us life. They give us food. They give us medicine and not just the sense of the physical thing of ingesting those plants and ingesting those animals, but just in the beauty around us. So being able to put that in our art just makes sense of where we come from. So that is really what I like to see is our story: of being influenced both from those Grandfather and Grandmother teachings from many, many generations ago and putting it together and that became our art form.
So you’ll see different variations, because not all Métis people are the same. My family comes from St. Albert and Lac Ste. Anne. Our artistic expression is a little bit different than the cousins that live in Fort Garry. So Winnipeg, Red River and they’re different from the Métis relations that are up North and then the ones that are in the U.S. It’s all a little bit different, but that commonality of that organic theme of those plants and the animals…that’s the thing that binds us together in our art, for sure.
DG: Can you talk more about the significance of Métis beading and its origin?
KL: So if you actually look at a lot of Métis art—early art though—it’s not just beadwork. It’s embroidery, it’s using quills, it’s using tufts, it’s using all of these different elements that are from around us. Again, taking the important things from those fur trader Grandfathers and those First Nation grandmothers and taking all those elements and putting them together.
Silk embroidery was really sought after. It was beautiful. It still is. If you go to museums and see private collections, that silk embroidery still shines today. It’s gorgeous. Silk was readily available during the fur trade and was highly sought after. Beads were also very available, but it wasn’t as fashionable. And I mean there’s different histories, right? And there’s different stories around that. But you do see the embroidery and you see the beadwork. I really think that beadwork has become more and more prevalent because of the accessibility to materials. And that’s a long debate, and I’m pretty sure that some people would be willing to debate me on that.
But the beads have a certain beauty to them because they’re made out of glass and the glass catches light. It changes light. It changes the way light bends. It creates a whole new story. It’s like painting with bits of sky and bits of water and bits of plants, and it’s just beautiful in its own way.
For me, I’m really attracted to glass [beads]. I love the way glass works. I love the fact that it is delicate, but it’s strong. It also has a certain weight to it. There’s something comforting about wearing a beaded jacket because it’s like this hug. It’s like a hug, and especially when you have those ancestral patterns and you use the teachings from your grandmothers of how to do that beadwork and your aunties. It’s like—even though they’re gone—they’re still giving you that warm hug. There’s like a pressure. It’s beautiful. Same thing with moccasins. When I wear my beaded moccasins, it reminds me of those that have walked before me and how they’re still guiding my path. And it also shows the responsibility to me of what I’m teaching to guide the footsteps of those that come after me.
So I guess it’s a really deep way of saying: I think beads are really pretty. I probably have about over 700 different kinds of beads, different sizes and colors and shapes, and they all speak to me. It’s just something really important to how I express myself. And a lot of that comes from the Métis women before me. And to me it’s just a really authentic way for me to tell my story.
Image source: Leddy’s beadwork that is featured on the cover of Stories of Métis Women: Tales My Kookum Told Me
DG: How long does it usually take to finish a piece of beadwork?
KL: Depends on a lot of things. When I first really got back into beadwork, it took me a really long time. It really depends on how big the beads are because I use beads that are the size of a grain of sand all the way to the size of a pea. And it also depends on the material I’m working on, and it depends on the size of the project. So, for example I just finished a floral infinity that I designed for a book that was published by the Métis Nation of Alberta, the New Dawn Métis Women’s Society. That one took me about 50 hours. It took quite a while. Really great book, by the way, about Métis stories.
And there’s the rainbow Louis Riel that I [made] that was in Canadian Geographic. That one took me probably about the same amount of time.
I do these pins for the University of Alberta nursing graduates. So the Indigenous graduates in nursing, when they have their pinning ceremony. They get a rosehip pin and that takes me anywhere from two to three hours. So it’s really a labor of love. It’s a very mindful process and it takes time. Beading is never quick. It takes time.
DG: What are some reasons you think people should view beadwork as valuable?
KL: Well [creating beadwork] takes a lot of skill and time. Just the amount of time and skill it takes to create a piece of beadwork makes it very valuable.
There’s also that connection. So when I teach beadwork I try to teach about beading images that belong to you, to your story. Beading is a way of creating art that is an expression of who you are, but also where you come from and where you want to go. It tells your story and I think our stories are so important. We have been undervalued for a very long time and that’s part of colonialism. That’s a part of trying to defeat us to try to push us down. And our work is valuable because it’s so rich and it has such a deep understanding and it takes time and every stitch has a story. That’s why it’s so valuable. And it’s beautiful.
[Beadwork] was sought after during the fur trade. [Men did beadwork too, but lots of women created beadwork] and their beadwork was valuable. [Trading and selling beadwork] helped their family survive the winter, helped their families survive life, and even in the [1940’s to 60’s], beadwork was a way for a lot of families to support themselves. Even today, there’s a lot of makers out there. This is how they pay their rent. This is how they put food on the table. This is how they dress themselves and their children. This is important and it is a very valuable way to support ourselves to tell our stories. More people need to see that. They need to understand [beadwork] is not just a craft. It is art. It is important art.
Image Source: Friends Royal Alberta Museum Society website
DG: Where are some places your beadwork art has been featured?
KL: I have a beaded mask in the Breathe exhibit [at the Royal Alberta Museum] called Fighting Chickadees. And that one was a really special one. I was asked by Lisa Shepherd [to participate.] She is also a famous Métis beader. I want to be her when I grow up.
[Lisa] said that they were doing this project called Breathe, which was a way for a lot of artists to kind of deal with the beginning of the pandemic. Because a lot of us were feeling just so overwhelmed. And for me, it was hard because I would see people fighting over things at the grocery store. I would see fear mongering [in the media]. It was a hard time for me and I found my creativity was really lacking. I felt pushed down. And this was a way to kind of deal with that. So I created this mask called Fighting Chickadees, and it was a way to heal. So I’m really proud that it’s in the museum, that it’s touring the country for people to see because I’m really proud of the piece. I think it’s really nice. It’s a beautiful piece to look at, but I think it’s a really important story that we’re telling.
I have had a couple of other pieces here, there and everywhere. Right now I’m working on a piece for a secret project. I can’t tell. So if you follow me on social media, you’ll get to see it pretty soon. It’s so exciting. I feel a sense of joy when I get to share my work and it’s not out of vanity. It’s not like: my piece is the prettiest piece. You need to see it. It’s not like that at all. It’s just a really important way for me to share [Métis] stories and to share my story. And I love to share just the sparkle and the beauty and the intricacies of beadwork.
DG: How has Métis beading connected you to your Métis heritage?
KL: I can answer that a little bit more. So I have been doing art for a very long time. And I’ve painted, I’ve sculpted, I’ve stitched, I’ve done lots of things, but I have to say that the moment I first felt that complete complete satisfaction and contentedness with my art that I felt like I was telling a story in a in the right way, in a good way was when I made my first art beaded piece. There’s just a different connection. I still paint, I still do all of that, but [that] art doesn’t have as much meaning as it does with the beadwork. And I think it’s again just that sense of belonging.
Like in our worldview, it’s about being connected. We are connected, right?
Wahkohtowin and we’re connected. All My Relations. And it’s not just with the people that are around me, it’s with the plants and the animals in the sky and the air and the water. It’s also connected with those in the past and those in the future. And I think beadwork reminds me of that connectedness every single time that I pick up my needle and I pick up my beads and I start to stitch.
DG: How has social media helped non-Métis people understand and appreciate media culture?
KL: Oh, it’s been wonderful. First of all, it gives me a platform to share, and there’s been pros and cons, of course. Because there has been theft of ideas and images, and that’s always going to happen. But it has given people a way to connect with myself and other Indigenous beaders in a way that’s beyond just going to a market or going to a farmer’s market or going to a store. It gives us a way to connect in a real world way. I know it seems weird, right? Because social media is not the real world.
But there’s a certain authenticity and how we connect. I can tell a story, I can show an image, I can show a process and people will ask questions, and they get to see an insight into a little bits of my life, little snippets of my life, or even just the creative process to understand that depth of this time and the skill and the stories that they don’t normally get to see. I have made some really amazing ally friends on social media. I’ve also connected with some amazing Indigenous beaders all over the world. It’s so exciting and I think that wouldn’t have happened without social media.
And I think the push towards social media, especially during the pandemic, has been wonderful in the sense of creating that awareness and building those relationships because that’s really what it is: It’s building relationships between myself and other indigenous people on those platforms, but also with the non-Indigenous people wanting to learn a little bit more and helping create that community. Right back to whole Wahkohtowin, right? All my relations, all of those people I’m connected to.
DG: Is there anything you would like to share about Métis culture that I missed in my interview questions?
KL: I think it’s really important to say that we are a unique culture and we’re here. Sometimes people think that Métis people just disappeared after 1886, right? Like after Louis Riel was hanged, after those dark times, they think that we just disappeared. But, we didn’t. We’re here. We’re alive. We’re thriving. We’re telling our stories. We are in all sorts of spaces. There’s a lot of opportunities for people to learn about who the Métis people are and about Métis culture.
And it could be like going to a place like Métis Crossing. It could be going to different cultural places, museums, connecting with Métis artists, connecting with Métis storytellers. There are so many opportunities for people to go out and learn about this beautiful, distinct indigenous culture, this amazing—Okay, I’m biased, right? Because I’m Métis—this amazing culture. And if you want to learn in a good way, we’re willing to share.
Deena is currently majoring in English. She is excited to be a blog writer since shes hopes to spread more awareness on topics she is passionate about and to also hopefully spotlight women who are doing amazing things in the local community.