Métis academic honours her heritage by beading while defending thesis
Honour shawl with berries, a bird, a herd of bison is loaded with meaning
Danielle Lussier spent years weaving words together to earn her doctorate in law, but her hands might have sent the most powerful message.
As part of the defence of her 500-page thesis at the University of Ottawa, Lussier strung together a Métis honour shawl with images of berries, a bird and a herd of bison.
The traditional two-sided women's garment features some 24-karat gold-plated beads representing key events in Métis history. Each design also carries deep personal meaning for Lussier, who grew up in Winnipeg and learned to bead as an adult.
For example, each bison represents a member of her family.
"The matriarch is the big 'mom' bison that stands behind the children," said Lussier, a Métis woman from Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba's Red River Valley.
"She has on her back the law of the prairie, which was a Métis legal system that governed buffalo hunt and community structures."
Lussier, who now wears her honour shawl to encourage questions, sees links between the beadwork and the law she studied to earn her PhD.
Beads carried law on Turtle Island when they were used to "entrench and codify and share law" even before the first interactions between Indigenous folks and settlers, she said.
Wampum belts, which have traditionally been used to call meetings and elections, also "allowed law and commitments to be shared amongst community members."
Watch: University of Ottawa PhD candidate includes beaded Métis honour shawl with thesis
"Wampum readers … were highly trained legal practitioners who learned how to interpret the beads in the treaty," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.
Written vs. oral law
Lussier also serves as the University of Ottawa's first Indigenous learner advocate, which was a position created to support Indigenous students in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action.
One of the key points of focus for that work, and in her beadwork, has been how European settlers prioritized the written word, while Indigenous knowledge systems were devalued.
"Métis beadwork … is considered an important dimension that complements an oral tradition, and it allows us to record a visual language of motifs and symbols," said Lussier.
"This is a labour of love that is to serve the generations that follow and also honour the generations that came before."
'Beading is medicine'
Beading has also carried more personal meaning in Lussier's present life.
Since the pandemic began, Lussier uses the craft to help her deal with the pressures of parenting while earning her doctorate.
"I was beading through the days and nights as part of a mental health-care strategy ... In that moment of crisis in March and April 2020, I did an awful lot of beading," she said.
"Beading is medicine. It helps ground us and tether us to the world."
- A previous version of this story, the CBC incorrectly reported that Lussier was believed to be the first person in Canada to include beading as part of her dissertation.Jun 20, 2021 3:06 PM ET
With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.