Indigenous Women’s Arts Conference in Gatineau passes on artistic knowledge

Paula Menarick has been sewing and crafting since she was just a child. After graduating nursing school in 2006, she’s also managed to make it into a career, selling her crafts through her brand, Fast Cloud Inspirations.

Originally from Chisasibi but now living in Ouje-Bougoumou, she now sells everything from beaded earrings, mirrors, cell-phone stands, baby bonnets, walking-out-ceremony outfits and other crafts through her online shop.

She wants to learn everything she can about crafting techniques and in the past spent time fruitlessly searching online for conferences on Indigenous art. So, when she was invited by the Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA) to attend the Indigenous Women’s Arts Conference in Ottawa/Gatineau, she jumped at the offer, joining a group of five travelling from Eeyou Istchee.

Half-Cree and half-Inuk, she was excited to attend an Inuit coat-making workshop at the gathering. “It lasted two full days,” she said. “It was a lot of work, but I was able to finish it by the end of the second day. It was so amazing! I felt connected with my Inuit culture. Being with people from different Inuit communities, it felt like I was with family.”

While at the gathering, Menarick also was able to attend a quillwork workshop, something she had wanted to learn and managed to pick up quickly: “I think it’s one of my favourite new crafting hobbies.” Eventually, she wants to be able to invite the workshop instructors to come to Eeyou Istchee and teach quillwork and caribou hair tufting.

“It was so empowering. Everyone was kind and supportive, I really enjoyed the experience,” she recounted. “I was lucky because a few doors down there was the Inuit throat singing group and on the last day they were wrapping up but dropped by our workshop and did some throat singing while we were sewing. That was amazing and beautiful and powerful.”

Menarick also attended a birchbark biting workshop, hosted by Pat Bruderer, a Cree from Manitoba. After working and doing research at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Ouje-Bougoumou, she discovered that the Eeyouch had traditionally done birchbark biting to plot out designs for clothing, among other things.

“Pat was amazing. She showed us tricks on how to fold and how to bite it and create different motifs: flowers, or women, or dragonflies, or bears, or anything. She did a few with us, I could not believe how detailed she could do a birchbark biting within a minute – she blew my mind!” Menarick shared.

Presenters constantly discussed the power for healing and reconnecting with culture through art and crafts. There was also a marketplace set up at the St. Laurent Shopping Centre in Ottawa, where Menarick enlisted one of the CNACA members to sell her crafts for her.

A gala event held in the Great Hall of the Museum of History in Gatineau featured Inuit throat singers, hoop dancers and an opening prayer by an Elder. “I felt really supported and encouraged as an artist,” she said. “It was beautiful, well organized and very empowering.”

For Dawn Iehstoseranón:nha Setford, conference organizer and President of the Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada, the gathering had three main goals: to make Indigenous women aware of the cultural property held at the Museum of History that they can access to revitalize arts and crafts; to facilitate workshops on traditional and endangered art forms; and to connect women. They held workshops on everything from beading to hoop dancing to dreamcatcher making to hand drum making to ribbon skirt making.

Setford estimates roughly 500 to 600 women participated, coming from every province and even from the United States. This was important for her, as “a lot of us are really unconnected. There’s a lot of urban, there’s a massive group of victims of child apprehension like the Sixties Scoop, we also had some residential school survivors.”

She originally planned the first conference in 2019 and had planned another in 2020 when the Covid pandemic hit. Though she lost most of her deposits, Setford was able to get more funding this year, and used it to pay for more workshops and more performers, in addition to the gala dinner.

“This was something I had always wanted to do when I started the organization 12 years ago,” she said. “That really evolved into seeing that while women were doing great contemporary work, we were losing those teachings from grandmothers and the past. I wanted to make sure we could offer a foundation of knowledge to contemporary artists and can better explain how they’re jumping off from the original visual arts that our ancestors did.”

Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation