Indigenous beadwork art: tips on buying a unique gift

Naomi Smith, Indigenous artist and 2018 folk artist-in-residence at Schneider Haus Historic Site, explains the dos and don'ts when it comes to purchasing Indigenous beadwork.

Naomi Smith, Indigenous artist and 2018 folk artist-in-residence at Schneider Haus Historic Site

Indigenous artist and 2018's folk artist-in-residence at Schneider Haus Historic Site in Kitchener poses in traditional wear. ((Naomi Smith/Submitted))

When getting your loved one a Christmas present, people often think of new tablets, new phones, luxurious makeup, or other modern things you can find in a retail store.

But one gift often overlooked is traditional Indigenous beadwork.

Naomi Smith is an Indigenous artist and was the 2018 folk artist in residence at the Schneider Haus Historic Site in Kitchener. She does painting, beadwork, quill work, sweetgrass braiding, birch bark baskets, and other types of art calling on traditional themes and materials.

How to find it

For finding potential beadwork and artists, Smith says social media is one of the best ways to get Indigenous art or beadwork, adding that people message her through her own Facebook page to inquire about what she has posted or other possible projects.

But for people that want to see it in person before they buy it, it could be a little difficult finding it in physical stores at the mall, so she advises attending Indigenous events where someone could be selling their work — or even taking a drive down to Six Nations of the Grand River.

Beadwork 'art' not a 'craft'

While beadwork is a great gift, the price of these pieces often reflect the work put into it.

"My narrative usually starts off with 'well, it took me about 100 hours to make and I want to make more than five dollars an hour.' And that sort of gives them a little bit of food for thought," said Smith.

"Unlike any other kind of art we like to price it according to what higher end art work would be priced at."

Smith says when people try to negotiate their own price, it often gets things "not on a good foot." She says sometimes she can be flexible on her pricing, depending all on the person and their need for her work. But she says it usually doesn't happen when people first try to negotiate the price.

Smith doesn't mind explaining about the pricing of her beadwork. But one thing that really bothers her is when Indigenous beadwork is seen as a "craft."

"The perception is it doesn't have value. That it's just a quick little kitschy thing, that doesn't have any you know, value, not even from the perspective of putting the energy and time into making it," said Smith.

"I've invested at least 10-15 years of learning and experience in order to be, what I consider, good at something … so if someone is going to look at something you made and go 'oh that's just a crafty thing,' it's a little disheartening."

Smith also notes the difficulties in competition when potential buyers compare prices with someone who is also selling their work.

"I'll have something similar but my price point might be 50 dollars or 75 dollars, so having that wide range in price points in situations is challenging," said Smith.

Budget accordingly

But sometimes, the beadwork someone is looking for can be hard to find. If there is a certain type of beadwork someone wants or if there is a certain design that someone can't find either online or in person, Smith says reaching out to an artist is another way to go about it.

For starting the conversation regarding commissioned work, Smith recommends telling the artist what their budget is, what it is they want done and seeing if the artist is able to do that. For her, she doesn't accept any money until the work has been completed.

Smith believes its important to support Indigenous artists rather than something you can buy in a retail store.

"I think anytime you come across an Indigenous artist and they're creating something, oftentimes if it's showing a lot of creative times, like it looks like a great time investment, that kind of thing, you know they're living their passion. And I think that is always worth supporting."

Hear Naomi Smith talk about beadwork art