Twin Mohawk sisters create Haudenosaunee-inspired silver jewelry at Six Nations
Conversation pieces are intended to 'create a dialogue between people when they wear it'
Green flames engulf a sterling silver plate as a blow torch whistles. As the plate begins to glow a dull red, Jesse Brant turns off the torch.
The green flame is a chemical reaction from a mixture of denatured alcohol and boric acid that is wiped on the silver plate to protect the metal from being burned.
"There's a lot of tension that's put on the metal right now and I need to heat it to bring all those molecules back together," said Jesse Brant.
"That makes the metal a lot more malleable; it'll make it bendier so I can roll it down."
The silver needs to be rolled through a mill and gradually flattened to the desired thickness before it can be worked on.
Jesse Brant is a jewelry maker who, along with twin her sister Dakota, owns a jewelry business in Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation. They belong to the Mohawk Nation and were raised in Six Nations.
The name of their business, Sapling and Flint, comes from the Haudenosaunee creation story where Sapling and Flint are the names of the twin creators of the universe.
At their studio, they make and display jewelry influenced by Haudenosaunee culture. The business's motto is "conversation pieces that share the story of Turtle Island."
"When we developed collections and pieces within those collections, they're designed to create conversation in a good way about how the history of Canada, of Turtle Island, has developed in the last 400 years," said Dakota Brant.
"We want to create pieces that are able to create a dialogue between people when they wear it."
Silversmithing doesn't run in their family, but the craft goes back hundreds of years in Haudenosaunee communities.
"In the 1600s, trade was very much utilitarian in those times — so your pots and pans, your iron pieces and guns," said Dakota Brant.
"But as we make our way into the 1700s, trade of fashionable items became introduced," she said.
"Your ribbons and fancy bolt cloth, fabrics, beads and then also the trade of silver."
She said silversmithing developed among the Haudenosaunee in the 1800s.
Inspiration from nature and culture
Jesse Brant, who was always interested in the art, took jewelry arts and design at George Brown College in Toronto. Dakota Brant has a master's degree in community planning from the University of British Columbia. She spent 12 years as a community engagement facilitator and cultural performing artist, travelling across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Sapling and Flint collections draw inspiration from natural things like birch bark and deer antler and are also rooted in Haudenosaunee traditions, with designs like lacrosse sticks and turtle rattle pendants.
One of the collections is called Trade Silver, influenced by the history of trading between Europeans and Indigenous people in North America.
"Trade silver is the terminology that is used when you're referring to how these designs here came into the economy," said Dakota Brant.
"As Haudenosaunee, as Mohawk people and artists, our relationship with trade silver is very prolific wherever you go and that continues today very prevalently in powwow culture."
Brooches, armbands, cones for jingle dresses and belt buckles are some of the pieces found on the powwow trail that are rooted in this tradition of silversmithing, she said, although now many of these pieces are now made in brass because it's an inexpensive material.
One piece from the collection stems from a design found in Europe of a crown and heart, sometimes worn as a brooch.
When the design came to North America, Dakota Brant said the design was perceived differently.
"We didn't see a heart because a heart wasn't a North American design. We saw an owl," said Dakota Brant.
"When our women began to wear these brooches, for us it was a charm protecting them at night time."
She said the brooches became a popular amulet for protection being placed on cradleboards.
"There are contrasting stories here but all of it has to do with the relationship of what it is that we saw," she said.
Since 2009, Jesse Brant has been working as an independent jewelry maker.
Two years ago, when both sisters started having children, they decided to open a store that manufactured and sold pieces that they design together.
Jesse handles the jewelry making while Dakota handles the business side of things.
"We text each other ideas all the time in the middle of the night," said Jesse Brant.
"Then there's one in 10 designs that we might do."
They said pieces like the lacrosse sticks pendants are in high demand among Haudenosaunee customers and the KARHÁ:KON — In the Woods collection of birch bark designs is popular among Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.
The brick and mortar store in Six Nations sells pieces, but online sales accounted for 87 per cent of their sales in 2018.
Being able to work and raise their children in their community is important to the sisters, and an opportunity they would like to see more people have.
"What I want to see is manufacturing and job opportunities that we can bring to our community here so that we don't have to send people away in order to have not just employment but meaningful employment," said Dakota Brant.