Fifteen blue. Three black. Three maroon. Fifteen blue. Three black. Three maroon. "Don't mess up," the perfectionist inside me warned, as...
WHITE EARTH, Minn. — Fifteen blue. Three black. Three maroon. Fifteen blue. Three black. Three maroon.
“Don’t mess up,” the perfectionist inside me warned, as the colored pattern ran like a rhythm through my head.
I was counting beads at a picnic table on the White Earth Band of Ojibwe reservation, where I was doing a story on a camp that teaches Ojibwe youth about the traditional wild-rice harvest. On this night, I joined a group of women learning to make earrings out of beads and porcupine quills.
I was a guest here and I didn’t want to make a scene by dumping my beads in the grass or piercing myself with a needle. My street cred was also at risk, as I got my thread tangled within moments of sitting down.
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Plus, I wanted my project to be flawless.
Three red beads. Two orange. Two yellow. One white. Be careful with the porcupine quill. Follow the pattern.
“Oh no! I made a mistake!” a young woman sitting across from me said.
“That’s OK,” the woman to my right reassured her, “every piece of beadwork should have a mistake because nothing in life is perfect.”
The words settled in the cool night air, and the perfectionist inside me quieted. I realized I was doing more than learning how to thread a needle through the center of a porcupine quill. I was also learning a little bit about life as these strangers shared stories of their children, talked of the men, and just laughed together while concentrating on our beads.
I had the chance to spend three days at the weeklong camp, which is open to American Indians but is not promoted to non-Natives. I was one of a few non-American Indians there and was welcomed to participate in most activities.
During my stay, I saw many women doing beadwork: One was sewing moccasins, another was making an intricate headpiece. Some were using the smallest beads I had ever seen to make earrings in the shape of hummingbirds.
The beadwork I saw has evolved slightly from the craftwork of American Indian ancestors, said Anton Treuer, an associate professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University.
“Originally we didn’t have beads. They were a European trade item … introduced in the 1600s,” Treuer said. Instead, he said, early craftwork included designs made out of items that were available, including porcupine quills. Embroidery was done with moose hair. Once beads came along, American Indians adapted and began using them to decorate artifacts or ceremonial and political regalia.
“After beads were available, they changed everything,” said Garnet Mountain, who teaches an Ojibwe craft class at Bemidji State.
Beadwork can cost anywhere from $3 for a souvenir keychain to up to $15,000 for a bandolier bag — and a fully beaded powwow outfit can cost much more than that, Treuer said.
On my first night at the camp, I noticed a group of women sitting down to make mini-moccasins, tiny versions of the leather shoes that are sewn together and decorated with beads.
I took my little needle and thread and began sewing beads onto a piece of leather just like the teacher told me, to form a flower design on what would become the toe of the moccasin.
I had trouble forcing my needle through the leather. Before long, my thread got tangled and my once-straight needle was bent into the shape of a “C.”
“What happened to your needle?” the teacher said, laughing as she leaned over to examine my work. She offered to get me a new one, but the thought of rethreading everything and starting over was too much.
I persevered with my curvy needle and enlisted the help of an 11-year-old girl next to me. Her little pink and green beads formed a flower shape. Why did mine look like a lump?
The next night, I tried again — determined to redeem myself. On that night, we made those earrings out of beads and porcupine quills.
We started by picking the quills out of a tangled mess of porcupine hair — a new experience for a city girl like me. But I dove right in, poking my fingers only a couple of times.
Then we washed the quills, cut the tips off of them and sat down to start beading, and I let the pattern sink in. Fifteen blue beads. Three black. Three maroon.
As I strung up my beads, I was lulled into a peaceful rhythm, perhaps aided by the beating drum in the background as the men played a gambling game. Nighttime at camp seemed special. Kids were singing in Ojibwe. I could hear the murmur of elders and teenagers who were talking around the crackling bonfire.
One of the men set up an overhead light, as we women kept on beading well after dark, letting our minds wander and relax as we focused on the colors and chatted away.
I also learned that while some beadwork is done for religious ceremonies or powwows, the process itself can become a creative journey.
“Look what the Spirit made me do!” one woman said happily, as she realized her colored pattern got mixed up. She just laughed and kept right on beading.