Threads of a Cree life: Montreal student unveils epic full caribou hide beadwork

After three years of work, a Montreal student has unveiled 'My Grandmother's Garden,' a piece of full-hide beadwork that honours her grandmother and Indigenous women.

My Grandmother's Garden honours Cree, Indigenous women

My Grandmother's Garden took Flora Weistche 3 years and 100s of hours to bead. It was inspired by her grandmother Helen Weistche who died in 1987. (Diane Icebound/CBC)

The idea to bead an entire caribou hide came to Flora Weistche in a dream. 

"I dreamt of my grandmother Helen sitting across the table from me, the caribou hide laid out on the table. When I looked at it, I could see the three main flowers in detail," she said.

Weistche is from the Cree community of Waskaganish, in the James Bay region of Quebec, and is currently studying at Montreal's Concordia University.

Flora Weistche's grandmother Helen Weistche. (George Legrady)

Last caribou hide 

Weistche's mother gave her the hide in 2015. It was from the last caribou her father harvested back in 1979, the year Flora was born.

"I got up that next morning and I just picked up a sketchbook and I started drawing. And I took my caribou hide and I started beading," said Weistche.

Now three years and hundreds of hours of beading later, the 39-year-old unveiled the finished hide this past Friday in Val d'Or. 

For Canadian Indigenous women

"I think that caribou hide was meant to fall into my hands and I believe I [was] meant to do this project," said Weistche, who drew inspiration from many different parts of her life.

She said the project is dedicated to all the women who have made a positive impact on her life, as well as to Indigenous women in the Cree Nation and across Canada.

Flora Weistche's grandmother Helen showed her a red flower connected to others in a dream in 2016. (Tristan Beauregard)

"All the flowers are different, different colours, different shapes, different style of beading. That signifies all women are different," said Weistche.

"But the flowers they all have the same life cycle, which signifies [we all] have the same life cycle."

Flora Weistche sketched what she saw in the dream of her grandmother Helen and a beaded caribou hide. The hide was from the last caribou her father Sanders harvested in 1979. (Flora Weistche)

The name of the project "My Grandmother's Garden,"or Nuuhkum Unihtaauchihchikin in Cree, is to honour Weistche's grandmother Helen, who used to take Weistche, who was six or seven at the time, to tend local gardens in Waskaganish. 

The name also pays tribute to Helen's two sisters, and her first cousin Mary Katapatuk, who Weistche says she "adopted as my grandmother" and who still beads today at the age of 100.

Threads of a Cree life: Montreal student unveils epic full-hide beadwork 'My Grandmother's Garden'

5 years ago
Duration 2:06
For Flora Weistche, beading a full caribou hide was a dream come true: literally. Watch her incredible creation come to life.

There are so many different threads of Weistche's life beaded into the project, it's hard to include them all.

Along with the three main flowers her grandmother Helen showed her in the dream, Weistche said she also included a recreation of Helen's signature beaded flower that a cousin found on an old pair of moccasins. 

There are flowers representing Weistche's sisters; Pearl, Francine, Brenda and Carrie, who helped her finish the project;. There is also a butterfly, representing all the people dear to Weistche who have "passed into the spirit realm." 

Weistche incorporated a raised beading style she learned in Kahnawake, a Mohawk community near Montreal. She went regularly to buy her beads. (Tristan Beauregard )

There is also a white butterfly with a ribbon, dedicated to a close friend who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2018.

There are bumble bees and a hummingbird designed by Weistche's 14-year-old son Tristan. 

During the unveiling, the hide was showcased in a frame that Weistche's father made using a technique typically used for making showshoes.

At 100 years of age, Waskaganish Elder Mary Katapatuk (pictured in 2014) is referred to by many in the community as Googoo Melly, according to Weistche. Mary still beads. (Ian Diamond)

A beaded dream catcher is incorporated into the bullet hole in the hide made back in 1979.

This was another inspiration that came from Weistche's dream as her grandmother spoke the word "hiipii" — ahiipii meaning "net" in East James Bay Cree. About a year after the dream, Weistche said it "clicked" that her grandmother was suggesting a dream catcher.

The flowers on "My Grandmother's Garden" are growing out of a turtle's back, which dominates the bottom of the hide. The turtle represents Turtle Island for Weistche, which is what some Indigenous people call North America.

"I guess I can say it's kind of like my version of the Indigenous Creation Story, using only beads," said Weistche, who had her mother Florrie and father Sanders with her at the unveiling last Friday.

Weistche's grandmother Helen's signature beaded flower, found on an old pair of moccasins by a cousin. (Tristan Beauregard)

"I'm really grateful that my parents came to support me," she said, adding it was important to honour her mother and her father with the piece.

Dedicated to Weistche's friend Sarah Spencer, who passed away with Metastatic breast cancer on July 20th, 2018. "She was a courageous, amazing, beautiful warrior who fought till the very end," wrote Weistche on Facebook. (Tristan Beauregard)

Since unveiling "My Grandmother's Garden", Weistche says she has been "overwhelmed" with support and reactions from all over the world.

She plans on putting the piece in a museum-grade frame, and is now working on getting "My Grandmother's Garden" appraised.

Weistche admits to feeling a bit lost now the project is done.

Grandmother Helen said "hiipii" (ahiipii means net in East James Bay Cree) when Weistche asked her in a dream what to do with the bullet hole left in the hide. (Tristan Beauregard)

"I sort of feel like there is this disconnectedness because I was connected to it for the past three years," she said. "I feel sad."

She trusts it will find the right home, "someone who will cherish it because it was made with love."

With files from Diane Icebound and Stephane Gunner