Beautiful Metis beadwork and its origins
Happy Sunday everyone!
I am not sure where everyone of you reading this are but it is a gorgeous warm and sunny day on the West Coast of Canada 🙂 So I thought I would share some beautiful bead work with you! Today, I want to focus on the Metis bead work. I have discussed the Metis Nation as well as their sash in a different post. In a nutshell, what you need to know is that Metis people are of mixed ancestry, typically European and Indigenous (often Cree and Ojibwe). However, being of mixed ancestry does not make one Metis. The Metis culture is a unique culture, born out of a mix of ancestries. Therefore, it is a culture in itself. To be Metis, one has to have an heritage that includes this particular culture.
Metis people and their bead work
Metis art is greatly influenced by both European and Native cultures. However, the Metis people have often influenced Native art, so much so that oftentimes, their art would be mistaken for Native art. It is thought that the Metis people actually introduced bead work to some Native nations such as Cree and Ojibwe, who took a liking to it and included it in their designs.. Nonetheless, sometimes credit for their work was given to Natives. Also, as European were more inclined to and demanding to buy “real Native art”, Metis people would sell their art to Native people who would resell it to the Europeans. Sad in a way that their culture was not recognized. And it also caused confusion as to the origins of bead work.
Nonetheless, Metis people were known as the “Flower Beadwork people” They would often do symmetrical floral patterns on a dark background (dark blue and black being the most common) using glass seed beads. They would even decorate their horse and saddle. Their work was traded all over North America and Europe. The floral bead work was used on anything they would wear like jackets, boots, moccasins, gloves, pants and vests. The floral bead work became synonym to the Metis people and a source of pride. They would also do floral silk embroidery, which they were introduced to by the Ursuline nuns (from Europe).
Meaning and themes in the Metis bead work
Some might wonder what the meaning of the bead work is. Well the floral designs are usually connected with stems as on the picture on the right. It is also at times influenced by the Ojibway principle of always representing four different parts of the plant, or four stages of vegetation. For example, the bead work will often include seed, leaves, buds and fruits or flowers. Or stems, leaves, buds and flowers.
If you think about it for a second it makes sense. Indeed, a lot of principles within the Native culture come in 4. Think of the four quadrants of the medicine wheel, representing our four sides, the four stages of life, the four directions. This would be the Metis equivalent if you will. Metis people are also taught to bead a mistake in their work to protect them from vanity. As only the Creator can make something perfect.
Alternatively, you will also sometimes see an X design in the pattern, again representing something similar to the concept of the four cardinal points, the four directions. However, not all designs are symmetrical. As long as they are balanced, just like the female and male energies balance each other. Reconciling opposites to find harmony.
If you take a look at the tobacco bag above, you will be able to see that it contains four quadrants, all connected by the stem. You will also see the out of place orange bead on the top left flower, the “mistake”.
The Metis Octopus bag
Yes that is a weird name. But if you look at the one on the right, I think the name will make sense to you. Octopus bags were originally known as “fire bags” as Metis people would use them to carry flint and steel to start fires. They also carried ammunition, tobacco and pipes. They are based on the animal skin bags originally made by the Algonquins (I won’t post a picture here….You can pretty much imagine an animal as a bag and that would be it). The fire bags are thought to originate from the Lake Winnipeg area and migrated as far as to the Tlingit people of the Northwest coast. And well the bag had 8 legs or pendants or 4 double pendants and became known as the octopus bag. With time, the octopus bag migrated to the Red River Settlement and then the Northern Cree. Before long, it was a hit!
I think it certainly looks cool and I could see myself having one. I tried hard to find where can one buy Metis beaded bags. However, they are not easy to find, especially, as I mentioned above, the origins of the bags are not always clear. You can check out this Etsy page for beaded bags, including medicine bags that I personally have (this one for example). Or try a local Metis artist. I am lucky to have one near where I live. I have mentioned him before (go in my Resources section), you can check him out here. I leave you with those 2 wonderful octopus bags 🙂
All my Relations
For more info on the Metis People, their work and history, see this Amazon link.