Beading project honours 'incredibly powerful' stories of residential school children

Deborah Young admits she’s not a skilled beader. But when the unmarked graves of 215 children were discovered in Kamloops, B.C., the social worker immediately thought of the traditional practice as a way to honour those children who never returned.

Deborah Young put out call for 215 baby vamps to mark children who never returned

For Deborah Young, beading is an act of resistance and healing. Why she's calling for 215 moccasin tops to honour residential school children this Sept. 30.

1 year ago
Duration 6:00
Deborah Young's parents met at residential school. In this video by Fangliang Xu, Young shares the impact the schools had her on family, and explains why something as simple as a beaded baby vamp can speak volumes.

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Deborah Young admits she's not the most skilled beader. But when the unmarked graves of 215 children were uncovered in Kamloops, B.C., the social work student — whose parents met at a residential school — immediately turned to the traditional art form as a way to honour those children who never returned.

In July, Young put out a call for 215 baby vamps, which are the beaded patterns that top moccasins. She says she's been amazed by the nearly 200 creations she's received from as far away as California and the U.K., many from those who say they have never beaded before.

"I've just picked up beading myself not too long ago. But what I love about beads is that when you look at [them], when they're just scattered around the table, it's meaningless, right?" said Young.

"But when you start threading them you create images and those images tell stories."

For Young, the letters that arrive in the mail with the vamps are even more moving, telling the story of each child.

"All of the stories I've received have been incredibly powerful."

(Fangliang Xu)
For Deborah Young, getting together to bead, even while physically distanced, can create community and healing. (Fangliang Xu)
Young says she was inspired to launch this call by a number of other beading projects that aim to honour residential school children, including one in Yukon. For her, it was important to do something locally to mark her parents' experiences at the schools. (Fangliang Xu)
Young asked people to bead vamps, which are the colourful patterns that top moccasins. (Fangliang Xu)

Unfinished journeys

The project is deeply personal for Young, who is Cree. Her mom, Bette Morriseau, and her dad, Ken Young, met at Dauphin Residential School in Manitoba.

She remembers her father telling her about how he ran away from school when he was first sent there at five years old. He spoke no English and fled into the nearby potato fields. He says he got lost and might have frozen to death if the nuns didn't discover him.

Young asked beaders to create a single vamp instead of a matching pair to reflect the unfinished journeys of those children who never returned home. She plans to donate the collection to Carleton University's school of social work where she is a PhD student.

Youn's mother Bette Morriseau, left, is from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. Her father Ken Young, right, is from Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba. They met at Dauphin Indian Residential School where these photos were taken. (Submitted by Deborah Young)
Young's mother took her back to visit the site of the Dauphin Indian Residential School in the 1970s. (Ken Young)

From father to daughter

Young says her parents tried to create a home life for her they never experienced, but they struggled with the impact of the schools when they became parents.

"My dad had a hard time showing love. I don't recall him ever, ever telling me that he loved me or hugging me," she said.

"That was just how dad was."

Young remembers feeling ashamed of her identity, using drugs, and running away to the streets of Winnipeg.

"I did a lot of damage to myself ... and I think it's because I hated myself. I believe that is connected to the violence that my people have suffered over generations."

It's something she's tried to change when it comes to her own two children, who are now adults.

"Things like that really impact people — when children don't receive the love that they deserve."

Young says she has received nearly 200 beaded vamps from as far away as California and the U.K. (Fangliang Xu)
This beaded vamp came with a letter explaining 215 beads were used in its creation. For Young, even more powerful than the vamps are the stories behind them. (Fangliang Xu)

A reckoning during a pandemic

As part of the project Young has taught new beaders online, while participants have also organized outdoor beading circles. For her, beading is about community, resistance and healing.

"I think it's helped people get through not just the pandemic, but also the trauma that we're experiencing as a country, as we think about what has happened around residential schools, around colonial violence — that's a lot of stuff people are working through."

She was heartened by the outpouring of grief after the revelations in Kamloops, B.C., this spring, but she worries the conversation has now quieted.

"You just can't have a reckoning and then have it die as quickly as it came. It can't work that way. It can't happen again."

Young says getting together, even at a distance, to make art together can be powerful. She's pictured here with social work professors Melissa Redmond, right, and Beth Martin, left. (Fangliang Xu)

Young's call ends on Sept. 30, National Truth and Reconciliation Day. She hopes despite the small size of the creations she's gathering, her efforts will have real impact on generations to come.

"What is a vamp? How is that going to change the situation? I have to believe it will," she said.

"Something so simple and something so quiet speaks volumes."

Young says despite her efforts, she knows she's passed on some of the baggage of residential schools to her own children, now adults. But she hopes this project will make a difference. (Fangliang Xu)

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Christine Maki is a journalist at CBC Ottawa focussed on community and creative storytelling. She is also the lead for CBC Ottawa's Creator Network and First Person units. You can email her at