Beadwork and Kitchen Table Stories
- Tenille K Campbell | March 24, 2021
Beadwork, to me, has always been a little mystical, a little magical.
Beadwork was something that other women did and something that I admired. Beadwork was artwork that Setsuné Rose excelled at, but it was a tradition never passed down to me. Instead, I watched as my cousins and kin picked up needles and thread and, as beads spilled forth onto kitchen tables, started their own journeys with beadwork. But sometimes, we start a little late, and that’s okay too.
My cousin, her house is hot. She has a wood stove that is constantly burning. The heat reminds me of my own house growing up on the rez, and how we always had to keep the fire going in the dead of winter and how nothing else will heat me in the same way.
Her kitchen table, like so many others, is also where she beads - tiny little glass beads sorted into pails and buckets, with little scraps of tanned moosehide gathered in a plastic bag - still sacred, no matter how small. When I sit across from her, taking off my jacket and helping myself to a cup of coffee with milk and sugar, she is already laughing at a story we started telling and only half remembered.
When I think of my life, I hear the echoes of her laughter within it. She has been laughing at me and with me and for me since we were babies together. Her laughter is a mark of her joy and I’m glad to hear it. She hands me a needle and a long white piece of thread and tells me to get on with it. I start by sketching out a feather that was originally supposed to be a leaf that also looks like a corn on the cob, and she lets me play – needle, thread, moosehide, carefully chosen beads glimmering in the light. I'm worse to teach than her son, she tells me, because I don't listen, and I want to do it my way. My beadwork is definitely not something traditionally beautiful, I can admit this. As I string along the curve of a line, bead by crooked bead, I tell stories of the city that seem so distant right now. First kisses. Flirting with people on apps. One-night stands. She wipes tears from her eyes as I tell her I’m in love with him, but I don’t know his name. She always cries when she laughs, and it’s not home until she tells me I’m crazy.
That first night, after three hours, I have a messy outline with beads scattered facing up and down, round and round. But she smiles at me, and tells me I did an interesting job, and she’s proud of me, but don’t mention her name if I post it online. I call her an asshole as I leave, laughing. I smell of woodsmoke and tobacco, and it makes me grin.
We repeat this pattern for the next two days, and each day I learn something new. She teaches me how to fill, eyeing out the number of beads needed, stitching them into place, making sure not to pull too tight so the beads have room to breathe. She also tells me stories of what has been happening on the reserve, often reminding me who is who. I am now the Auntie figure, asking who the cousins are and the aunts and uncles. She is patient but rolls her eyes as she tells me who our families are, yet again.
On the last day, she teaches me how to edge, and laughs when I start to go in the opposite direction, making it up, yet again. And as I focus on creating a clean and tight line, watching silver needle flashing in and out of tanned moose hide under the kitchen light, we talk in lower voices. The stories are told in unwavering flat tones describing some heartbreak, some pain, and many worried over raising children. We share our truths, unflinchingly and somehow still laugh together, because even in the dark, we can call in the joy.
As I start to get ready to leave, she is looking around for things to gift me, and I quickly tell her that I don’t want a ribbon skirt, and she shakes her head at me, laughing. I don’t want a gift of anything, I mean. She has given me hours of her time over the last few days, sharing food and beads and knowledge and kinship, so instead I will be the one to find something to gift her with. What she has already given me is immeasurable.
I’m back in the city now, a crooked feather keychain in hand, still smelling of woodsmoke and tobacco. I’m told I’m to give my first beadwork to someone and I’m reminded of how hard it is for me to fall into traditions, just because someone told me to. I know I will eventually gift this slightly textured, slightly off-key artwork to someone soon, but for now, I hold it in a safe place, sitting with it and the stories it holds.