Unreserved

Indigenous artist helps mother stitch pieces of her culture back together through beadwork

Traditional Indigenous craft-making skills are often handed down from generation to generation, but Alley Yapput, an Ojibway-Cree artist based in Thunder Bay, Ont., is passing that piece of his culture up a generation to his mother.

Artist Alley Yapput taught his mother, Madeline, how to bead and make moccasins

Madeline Yapput, left, and her son Alley Yapput, display their handmade beaded crafts. (Submitted by Alley Yapput)

Traditional Indigenous craft-making skills are often handed down from generation to generation, but Alley Yapput, a two-spirit Ojibway-Cree artist based in Thunder Bay, Ont., is passing that piece of his culture up a generation to his mother. 

Alley's mother Madeline, 69, was forced to attend a residential school near Kenora, Ont., for six years. Until recently, she had never beaded in her life. 

"I saw my mom beading before when I was growing up, but I was never interested in it because I had a lot of problems," she told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. "[There were] too many things in my head, you know, after coming back from over there, the residential school. I didn't share ... anything about the way I felt about myself."

About five years ago, around the time that Madeline retired, she lost her sister to cancer, so Alley — who was living in Winnipeg at the time — moved back to Ontario to be closer to his mother. 

Since Madeline didn't have much to do as a retiree, he encouraged her to pick up the needle and thread. 

Madeline Yapput cuts leather to make moccasins, mukluks or mittens, in her Thunder Bay, Ont., home. (Submitted by Alley Yapput)

"When I would go over and visit, I would bring all my sewing with me and I'd say, 'Here, try this,'" Alley said. "And she started doing small, little crafty things like little ornaments, or she would make little tiny moccasins."

Now the two regularly sit together in Madeline's living room, beading, sewing, chatting and laughing. 

Learning by remembering

Alley began crafting in his teens after a childhood spent at his grandmother's side as she beaded, sewed, worked with leather and made snowshoes. He didn't receive formal training from his grandmother, but learned by watching. Later, he learned by remembering. 

Alley Yapput began crafting in his teens after a childhood spent at his grandmother's side, watching her as she beaded, sewed, and worked with leather. (Submitted by Alley Yapput)

"I first started crafting when I was in high school … just starting with basic crafts like earrings and dream catchers … and just kind of remembering the process of how you would put together leather into footwear [to make moccasins]," he said.

Blood memory played a role in his development as an artist as well, he said. "It's something you don't forget completely. It's there ... and something will trigger you and you'll say, 'Hey, I know how to do this.'" 

Handmade mukluks made by Alley Yapput. (Submitted by Alley Yapput)

While living in Winnipeg, he started selling moccasins and other crafts. Now, Alley completes custom orders to make everything from mukluks — traditional winter boots — to ribbon skirts, and teaches moccasin-making workshops in Thunder Bay. 

That first pair of moccasins

Alley later invited his mother to one of his moccasin-making workshops for Indigenous youth and residential school survivors. Madeline said she remembers that day well. 

"[It was] a very nervous day for me because I have never done any sewing live with people before," she said. "It was really difficult when I was beading the first time … [but] I felt amazed when I finished my moccasins."

Alley Yapput taught his mother, Madeline, how to bead and make moccasins. Pictured right: Madeline's first pair of moccasins, which she made at Alley's workshop. (Submitted by Alley Yapput)

In fact, Alley said his mom is the only attendee from that workshop who completed their pair of moccasins. 

"I am so grateful that I learned from him because [he is a] very patient person," Madeline added. "From there, I went on and I kept going, and I'm still beading today."

Reconnecting to culture and each other

Their time crafting has brought the mother and son closer, particularly during the difficult months of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Madeline also lost one of her daughters in a car crash. It's also helped them both practise their Ojibway language. 

"It's helping me relearn my language again, when I'm over at my mom's house. There's very little English," Alley said. "I'm still kind of a little shy when it comes to speaking. But, you know, I'll try when I'm with my mom."

Sometimes [Alley] would ask me [about] words, how you say these things … and I get stuck because I lost a lot of language when I was going to residential school.- Madeline Yapput

Madeline gets to practise her first language, which she spoke fluently as a child but wasn't allowed to use when she was sent to residential school. 

"Sometimes [Alley] would ask me [about] words, how you say these things … how do you spell it, and stuff like that, and I get stuck because I lost a lot of language when I was going to residential school," she said. 

Their time together has also given Alley the opportunity to share Madeline's work to a wider audience on Facebook. 

Handcrafted set of mittens, hat and moccasin boots made by Alley and Madeline Yapput to raise money for a headstone for Alley's sister who died in a car crash during the pandemic. (Submitted by Alley Yapput)

Madeline has developed a small following of fans on the social media platform and, like her son, gets requests for custom orders of beaded mitts, moccasins and mukluks. 

"I can't say no to anybody," she said. "It's not about the money. You know, when you can accomplish something for somebody … that's what makes me feel good."


Written and produced by Laura Beaulne-Stuebing

now