New Brunswick

Mi'kmaw artists recreating 180-year-old regalia

A group of four Mi’kmaw artists have been at the Metepenagiag Heritage Park this summer hard at work on recreating the beadwork of regalia crafted almost 200 years ago.

Recreation based on ceremonial outfit given to British captain by Mi'kmaw chief

Ernestine Francis from Elsipogtog First Nation is one of four Mi'kmaq artists working on a recreation of regalia that was gifted to a British captain by Chief Joseph Maly Itkobitch in the 1840s. Francis is pictured here working on a section to be added to the recreation. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC)

"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. 

Mi'kmaw artists recreate 180-year-old regalia at Metepenagiag Heritage Park

1 month ago
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Ernestine Francis, Ingrid Brooks, Oakley Rain Wysote Gray and Sgoagani Wecenisqon are recreating the beadwork of regalia crafted 180 years ago by three female Mi'kmaw artists. 3:00

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."

This original regalia is currently housed in the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., where it will remain stored indefinitely due to its fragile condition. (Rebecca Dunnett)

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."

Intricate beadwork 

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.

Sgoagani Mye Wecenisqon from Esgenoôpetitj First Nation is one of four artists working on the regalia recreation. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC)

"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."

Ingrid Brooks was one artist that was approached by the Metepenagiag Heritage Park in 2019 to start the project. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC)

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. 

Ernestine Francis (left) and Ingrid Brooks (right) examine the original coat made in the 19th century which is now being stored at the Canadian Museum of History. (Rebecca Dunnett)

"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.

Oakley Rain Wysote Gray is a two-spirit Mi'kmaq artist from Listiguj First Nation and also assistant project manager. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mrinali has worked in newsrooms in Toronto, Windsor and Fredericton. She has written and produced stories for CBC's The National, CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup, CBC News Network and CBC Entertainment News.

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