Language and food

Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Knowledge Translation through Beadwork

assistant professor of Indigenous education, York University

Indigenous beadwork, and by extension the beading process, is a form of knowledge mobilization, translation, and representation.”

Grass Dance Medallion by John Waaseyaabin Hupfield
Grass Dance Medallion by John Waaseyaabin Hupfield

Indigenous beadwork, and by extension the beading process, is a form of knowledge mobilization, translation, and representation.

Beadwork is more than an artistic aesthetic process for many First Peoples. Indigenous beadwork, and by extension the beading process, is a form of knowledge mobilization, translation, and representation. Seeking to proliferate beadwork as a form of knowledge mobilization, this project was a collaboration with Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe beadwork artists who translated this “Language and Food” photo essay by Ryan Decaire through traditional beadwork practices. 

All three beadwork artists are current students in the Faculty of Education at York University (Toronto, ON). 

The three beadwork projects include:

  • Grass Dance Medallion by John Waaseyaabin Hupfield (Anishinaabe, Wasauksing First Nation)
  • Corn Braid Pennant by Tahnee Bennett (Kanyen’kehá:ka, Six Nations)
  • Three Sisters Brooches by Kahsenniyohstha Lauren Williams (Kanyen’kehá:ka, Turtle Clan, Six Nations)

Each project page includes a statement from the artist speaking to the significance of Decaire’s photo essay; their relationship to language, food, and land; and, their relationship to beadwork as a form of knowledge translation. 

This project was made possible by York University’s Indigeneity in Teaching and Learning Fund (ITLF) 2021/2022, from the Office of the Vice-Provost Academic. The Principal Investigator for this research project was Dr. Kiera Kaia’tano:ron Brant Birioukov (Kanyen’kehá:ka, Wolf Clan, Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory) who is an assistant professor of Indigenous education in the Faculty of Education at York University. Website design and support was provided by Diego Lopez (Master’s student, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, York University). 

So when you have a people who refer to their food in everyday speech as “They provide us with life” – how does that guide your behavior?

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Corn and squash brooches by Kahsenniyohstha Lauren Williams
Three Sisters Brooches

Student in the Faculty of Education, York University

My name is Kahsenniyohstha Lauren Williams. I am Kanyen’kehá:ka turtle clan. I was born in Toronto, Ontario, and my family comes from Six Nations, Ontario.

I created three brooches to represent each of the Three Sisters, corn, beans, and squash. I included the bean and squash flowers, to remind us of the beauty of their life cycles. These plants provide our delicious nutritional sustenance—Tyonnhéhkhwen, and also bring beauty to our senses with their fresh smells, beautiful colours, the gentle rustling sounds of their leaves in the wind, and the way those leaves brush our legs and shoulders in the garden, reminding us of our relationship and responsibilities to lovingly care for one another.

Ryan DeCaire’s essay reminds me of the ancient relationship my family and ancestors have had with corn, beans, and squash, in loving gratitude and reciprocity that continues in Haudenosaunee gardens and ceremonies to this day. This deep love literally begins at ground level, and will help our communities heal by supporting revitalizing our culture through relationship with the land, language, and growing our sustenance.

As I was sketching these designs, I drew upon teachings the Haudenosaunee Creation story, when these plants first grew on Earth from the body of Skywoman’s daughter. I drew upon teachings of how these plants grow well together as sisters, in reciprocal relationship with one another, each with their unique gifts, purpose, and beauty in each stage of their life cycles. I chose to bead brooches so these stories and reminders can be worn close to the heart, as an inspiration to continue sharing these stories, and loving and honouring our plant relatives. 

"I chose to bead brooches so these stories and reminders can be worn close to the heart, as an inspiration to continue sharing these stories, and loving and honouring our plant relatives." 

Beadwork is an important medium for me to express myself creatively and find a peaceful place. I find the regular rhythm of picking up beads and pulling the thread calming, and it keeps my hands busy while my mind is free to listen or think of other things. I am inspired to bead by the intergenerational love of so many skilled beaders who continue to share their skills with new learners.

Grass dance medallion

Student in the Faculty of Education, York University

John Waaseyaabin Hupfield is Anishinaabe from Wasauksing First Nation. Hupfield spends his summers travelling to powwows across Turtle Island with his family and beadwork in tow.

"They say that the word for beading in Anishinaabemowin is manidoominens. The root of that word is manidoo (spirit), which makes so much sense to me now. As a grass dancer, beadworker, father, uncle, and educator I’m truly grateful for all the work those beads are doing for Anishinaabeg to story, learn, and nurture our spirits."

As a grass dancer, beadworker, father, uncle, and educator I’ve come to see a dynamic relationship between beading, stories, learning, and spirit. As I bead there are many stories that come to mind. I have memories of poking around in glass jars with needle and thread while listening to my Ojibway teacher – Mrs.King – speak the language. I remember the first beaded medallion I made when I was in my late teens. It was yellow, orange, and iridescent, shaped like giizis (grandfather sun). The second beaded medallion I made was black, red, and had shiny silver beads. I made that one in a youth drop-in program in downtown Toronto. I remember being told not to use the silver because the paint will chip off over time. I didn’t listen, and yep they were right, that medallion still hangs in my house – flakes of silver falling away over time, exposed grey plastic poking out from underneath. Beading has given me many teachings over the years, like maybe it’s wise to listen to the suggestion from the beading instructor? Nowadays I bead for my grass regalia, and my children’s outfits.

Grass Dance Medallion by John Waaseyaabin Hupfield

“Ryan Decaire reminded me how our languages, be they Haudenosaunee or Anishinaabemowin, can inform our daily practices. Whether we are putting seeds into the ground, or beading a medallion for regalia, the movement of picking up those small seeds/beads with clear intention and purpose is so important.”

“Ryan Decaire reminded me how our languages, be they Haudenosaunee or Anishinaabemowin, can inform our daily practices. Whether we are putting seeds into the ground, or beading a medallion for regalia, the movement of picking up those small seeds/beads with clear intention and purpose is so important.”

I’ve continued to learn from others, through relationships and time, through sharing stories about our respective beadwork, I’ve observed other dancers’ regalia on the powwow trail. My beading journey has been a deliberate and slow learning process that I have come to love. When folks see me beading, or comment on my beaded outfit at a powwow, they often say “wow you must have so much patience to make that.” I just awkwardly laugh and say thank you. I think patience is certainly a good attribute to have when beading, but it’s moreso the way that I feel when beading that enables me to keep at it.

On the surface level the process itself is rewarding, the incremental progressions over time, seeing a small area outlined or filled with a new colour, each is a small reward and journey unto itself. I also remember being taught at a young age that every bead we pick up is a prayer. At the time I didn’t understand what that Elder was trying to teach me, because I only knew prayer as what I had seen attending church with my mom and dad. Now I understand that beadwork is about intention, wanting good things in your life for yourself and those you love.

When I’m beading I imagine my daughters’ shawl flying in the breeze, beads sparkling in the light. I want them to feel good in that outfit. Putting on regalia, something you have made with your own hands, or that your family member made for you, helps us shine bright. I think that our ancestors knew that feeling very well, they knew dancing and beading were good for us Anishinaabe, good for our spirit.

Ryan Decaire reminded me how our languages, be they Haudenosaunee or Anishinaabemowin, can inform our daily practices. Whether we are putting seeds into the ground, or beading a medallion for regalia, the movement of picking up those small seeds/beads with clear intention and purpose is so important.

Grass Dance Medallion by John Waaseyaabin Hupfield

“Now I understand that beadwork is about intention, wanting good things in your life for yourself and those you love.”

I think Mrs. King would be grateful that I am still beading today. I think she’d be grateful I am still learning my language too. They say that the word for beading in Anishinaabemowin is manidoominens. The root of that word is manidoo (spirit), which makes so much sense to me now. As a grass dancer, beadworker, father, uncle, and educator I’m truly grateful for all the work those beads are doing for Anishinaabeg to story, learn, and nurture our spirits. Miigwech.

Corn Braid Pennant

Student in the Faculty of Education, York University

My name is Tahnee Bennett or Kanerahta’kerha. I am Mohawk from Six Nations and Turtle Clan. I am a full-time student, a full-time mom and an online Language Instructor. 

Each year as we grow corn and harvest it, we hang it to dry. A traditional way to do this was by bringing many ears of corn together and weaving them together into a braid. This makes it so there is much corn that can be hung safely, and securely.

While I read Ryan’s article I was taken back to the time we had gathered at the Longhouse to braid all the blue corn that had been given to us for drying and future uses in the winter and spring. I recall hand selecting all my ears and started to braid, with the elders sitting behind me chatting in Kanyen’keha and the kids of the mothers running through the Longhouse. This was ceremony.

Even though we didn’t have a specific ceremony where we come together to braid corn, we had definitely turned it into ceremony by gathering together with one mind, one heart, and one spirit in the name of the corn, the corn is what brought us together. I can recall the amount of Skén:nen (peace) that I felt afterwards as if I had finished a regular ceremony.

"This is what food is for our people, it is sacred, as Ryan said our Tyonnhékwen, our sustainer, they who give us life, our food bring that life and joy to it and we must remember to always give our thanks and gratitude to tyonnhékwen." 

This is what food is for our people, it is sacred, as Ryan said our Tyonnhékwen, our sustainer, they who give us life, our food bring that life and joy to it and we must remember to always give our thanks and gratitude to tyonnhékwen. I wanted to bring this feeling back to life by creating the corn braid and replicating the colors the best that I could with my beads. I was happy with the outcome not only because of the turn out, but because I was able to go back in my mind to ceremony and have those moments relived all over again. 

Kahsenniyohstha Lauren Williams (Kanyen’kehá:ka, Turtle Clan, Six Nations)

Corn Braid Pennant by Tahnee Bennett (Kanerahta'kerha)

Tahnee Bennett (Kanyen’kehá:ka, Six Nations)

Grass Dance Medallion by John Waaseyaabin Hupfield

John Waaseyaabin Hupfield (Anishinaabe, Wasauksing First Nation)