How an Indigenous art conference helped connect women with their traditions

From deer hide moccasins to bracelets braided with sweetgrass, Indigenous female artists showed their work this weekend in Ottawa.

Weekend event in Ottawa 'a chance to learn from our elders'

Dawn Setford organized an Indigenous art conference held this weekend at the St. Laurent Shopping Centre. The conference was intended to help Indigenous women grow as entrepreneurs and learn more about their traditional art and culture. (Salma Mahgoub/CBC)

Deer hide moccasins with floral bead patterns. Dream catchers with dangling bird feathers. Bracelets decorated with braided sweetgrass.

These were just some of the handcrafted artworks on display in Ottawa this weekend at an art conference designed to help Indigenous women grow as entrepreneurs and learn more about their traditional art and culture. 

"Our transfer of Indigenous knowledge has been purposefully derailed," said Dawn Setford, the lead organizer of the Indigenous Art Conference at the Willis College in St. Laurent Shopping Centre.

"There's so many of us out there who haven't had a chance to learn from our elders and our community."

Traditional artwork on display during this weekend's Indigenous art conference at the St. Laurent Shopping Centre in Ottawa. (Salma Mahgoub/CBC)

A traditional Mohawk artist for 30 years, Setford said she's met several women who've faced challenges in learning their traditional art.

There's not only the barrier of being removed from their communities by the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, but also the financial burden of accessing traditional art workshops, which can cost around $100, Setford said.

For Indigenous people, every single [work of] art that we create has culture, history and spirituality behind it.- Dawn Setford

To address the problem, Setford has spent the past six years planning this conference, organizing free art workshops run by Indigenous artists specifically for Indigenous women.

"The idea of this conference has really stemmed from getting as many women as I can to learn for free so they can take that home and share it with their kids," said Setford, who is also president of the Aboriginal Arts Collective of Canada.

Setford herself was disconnected from her culture growing up.

It wasn't until she met her birth mother as a teenager that she began to seek out Indigenous teachings on reserves in Canada and the U.S.

"For Indigenous people, every single [work of] art that we create has culture, history and spirituality behind it," she said.

"So when we're missing our art forms, we're literally missing our own culture and spirituality."

Reversing that loss of culture

Among the 200 women who participated in the workshops were Ottawa sisters Jada McLeod and Lili Miller.

Both decided to attend a workshop on the ancient art of birchbark biting to learn more about a community they were raised away from.

"A lot of (Indigenous) culture has been lost because of colonialism. I'm trying to reverse that by learning some of these traditions to pass them on to my community," said Miller, who is from the Wolastoq First Nation.

Sisters Jade McLeod, left, and Lili Miller, right, attended a weekend workshop at the conference on the traditional art of birchbark biting. (Salma Mahgoub/CBC)

Her sister added that the workshops helped build their identities as Indigenous women.

"I find when we're within these groups we get a little more inner strength to be who we are," said McLeod.

It's this kind of learning that Setford hopes to achieve through the conference.

"We have to be collective and support each other at this critical time," she said.

"If I can do just two days of that, then that'll make me really happy."