Mi'kmaw artists recreating 180-year-old regalia
Recreation based on ceremonial outfit given to British captain by Mi'kmaw chief
"This is the most challenging thing I ever done," said Ernestine Francis, as she pondered the beadwork she and three other Mi'kmaw artists have been painstakingly working on throughout the summer at the Metepenagiag Heritage Park.
All four artists are graduates of the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design. Since June, they have been beading a series of intricate patchwork portions to go onto a modern day recreation of a coat, part of an original outfit that is almost 200 years old.
The history of the regalia dates back to the early 1840s, when British Captain Henry Dunn O'Halloran was given a ceremonial outfit by Mi'kmaw Chief Joseph Maly Itkobitch.
O'Halloran was also made an honourary Mi'kmaq chief by Chief Itkobitch for his work gathering census information on Mi'kmaq along the Miramichi River.
This original regalia is currently housed in the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., where it will remain stored indefinitely because of its fragile condition.
The original regalia was crafted by three Mi'kmaw women who were not historically documented or acknowledged for their exceptional beadwork.
Based on oral history, it is believed that two of these women may have been Annie Ginnish and Christina Morris, likely from Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, but the research remains inconclusive.
Sgoagani Mye Wecenisqon said that gives working on the recreated regalia coat an additional layer of responsibility.
"The women who worked on this jacket, they didn't get the recognition that they really did deserve."
The artist from Esgenoôpetitj First Nation said, "Their descendants are ... redoing it and making sure that everybody knows it was created by these women. We're carrying on the tradition of remaking what they did. So I think in a way, this is another way to honour them by remaking the jacket."
The work to recreate the coat began in 2019 but slowed during the pandemic. The artists returned this summer to resume work.
Ingrid Brooks said the work required the artists to make some adjustments in their approach.
"We're trying to revive a lot of the lost artwork like all these double curves. I notice people are putting it on stuff and it's only like a few basic designs they're using," said the artist from Indian Island First Nation.
"When we seen this coat, we've seen like how many different double curves were in the florals and the ferns, all the intricate beadwork, so we really wanted to promote this ancient beadwork."
For Ernestine Francis, working on the coat has been one of the most daunting but rewarding projects she has pursued.
"Sometimes when I'm beading, a lot of things go through my head...I wonder how our ancestors did this and these were three women and they didn't have lights and magnifying glasses like we have," said the artist from Elsipogtog First Nation.
"All the intricacy, like these curves and stuff like that, I never really did that and now I'm doing it. it's challenging, but I love it. I'm learning a lot from these designs. I'm learning a lot from our team here."
All four artists work eight hours a day and as Oakley Rain Wysote Gray describes, "It's almost therapeutic. It's like you don't even really notice that you're doing eight hours because, like for me, it takes like three hours to get one portion of it done, like one double curve motif."
Gray said he recalls hearing about the beauty of the original coat when he was a child.
"I've been like awing about this coat since I knew about it and it's always been a point of reference, especially because my aunt has always told me about it and she did a lot of research," said the artist from Listiguj First Nation.
"What keeps me going when it comes to bead work is the thought of, if my ancestors could do it today, what it would look like? It's kind of like continuing the story that they couldn't live to tell."
Visitors to Metepenagiag Heritage Park can see the artists at work from Tuesdays to Thursdays this summer.
The grand unveiling of the outfit is expected in October at the Heritage Park's exhibit hall.