Beadwork challenge brings Kahnawake together amid COVID-19 restrictions

When Kahnawake, Que., announced that the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community would be heading into a month-long stretch of new measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Jessica Hernandez came up with a beading challenge.

'Even though we were all going to be by ourselves, we’d be doing something together,' says Jessica Hernandez

Candace Snook was one of the dozens of artists in Kahnawake to take up a beadwork challenge over the course of January. (Submitted by Candace Snook)

When her Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) community announced that it would be heading into a month-long stretch of new measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Jessica Hernandez said she was worried about people feeling lonely.

It's why she decided to design an elaborate raised beadwork pattern filled with florals and birds, and ask community members in Kahnawake, Que., to take the challenge of beading the piece.

"I was just thinking about how when we first shut down, it wasn't so bad because we had the nice weather to look forward to," said Hernandez, who owns Nicia's Accessories, a local craft supply store.

"But this shutdown was coming in January in one of the darkest and loneliest months. It had me concerned for everybody."

Jessica Hernandez is the owner of Nicia's Accessories, an arts and crafts store in Kahnawake, Que. She designed this beadwork pattern for her community to keep busy throughout new COVID-19 restrictions. (Submitted by Jessica Hernandez)

Kahnawake's COVID-19 task force, which oversees the community's pandemic response, announced in December that gatherings would be banned and all non-essential businesses would close for a month following the holidays. Hernandez said she wanted to do something to help keep people occupied, happy, and avoiding gatherings.

"I know beading is medicine," she said.

"I didn't want anyone to feel lonesome in January. Even though we were all going to be by ourselves, we'd be doing something together."

Dozens of pieces have been submitted so far including one by an 89-year-old elder, first-time beaders, and artists from other First Nations. Each brought a diversity of styles and techniques to the challenge. Some have incorporated the design into purses.

For Aurora LeBorgne, it will be a cradle board cover. The colour palette she chose was inspired by watching Netflix's The Crown.

"It's been a good way to distract myself from thinking negatively during these times with COVID and being in isolation, not being able to see friends and family. It was a good way to feel positive by completing this beadwork challenge," she said.

"I enjoy being alone and putting so much of myself into the beadwork. When I bead, it's like therapy for me. I like to just reflect on life and figure things out; it makes me feel better when I do."

Aurora LeBorgne's colour palette for the challenge was inspired by the series The Crown, which she was watching on Netflix while beading. (Submitted by Aurora LeBorgne)

Candace Snook expressed similar sentiments. 

"It was a really good way to bring a whole lot of people together," she said.

"For me, my beadwork is my grounding. I'm almost in a meditative state when I'm doing my beadwork. I'm focused, I'm calm, and that's a similar outlet for a lot of people."

Snook's submission incorporated her style of beading on stretched canvas. She hopes to see some of the final pieces exhibited in Kahnawake, and said she is in the early stages of organizing a mobile display so that the work can be brought to elders in long-term care to see.

Candace Snook beads on stretched canvas, using various size beads and embellishments that incorporate both flat and raised beading techniques. (Candace Snook)

Hernandez offered a prize — a gift certificate to her shop — as an incentive for people to participate. Additional prizes ended up being donated by other businesses in and outside of Kahnawake when the challenge was announced. 

While the draw takes place at the end of the month, Hernandez said she hopes participants who haven't yet completed their pieces will continue (or start) and share their final work regardless of the deadline.

"I don't know how many submissions we're going to get but there's going to be that many pieces that have the word community or this design on it," she said.

"A hundred years from now, someone is going to look at it and wonder where it came from. Someone will know it came from all these people beading together through the pandemic. It's kind of cool."

Kahnawake craft store owner brings people together with beadwork

3 years ago
Duration 4:01
CBC Montreal's Sudha Krishnan speaks with Jessica Hernandez about her beadwork challenge


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.