How 5 Indigenous women are rocking their businesses with beauty

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They are creators, entrepreneurs, teachers and artisans, remixing tradition, creating pieces for ceremony, powwows, self-care and fashion making the world more beautiful with every bead, shell and prayer-filled piece of work.

By Emilee Gilpin

Meet Lenise Omeasoo of Antelope-women Designs, Arianna Johnny-Wadsworth of Quw'utsun' Made, Caroline Blechert of Creations for Continuity, Sharifah Marsden and Vyna Brown of CopperCanoeWoman Creations.

Omeasoo, Wadsworth, Blechert, Marsden and Brown took a moment after a busy holiday season to reflect on how they made it in the world of business and art as Indigenous women from all directions.

Chapter 1

Antelope-women designs

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"Beading has given me confidence and strength, more than anything else could. Beading is my superpower."

Lenise Omeasoo

Omeasoo, 26, is originally from Hobbema, Alta. and is a part of the Sampson Cree Nation. She's also Blackfeet, she said over the phone, enjoying the calm after a holiday storm. But her single mother, faced with raising two young girls on her own, moved to Montana for a job when they were young.

"We all share a story of pain and rebuilding and I just want to continue to learn about my own culture and my sisters and brothers as well," Omeasoo said. Photo courtesy of Omeasoo.

Omeasoo grew up in a "mostly white world, uprooted and disconnected" from her Cree and Blackfeet cultures, she said. Over the past few years especially, Omeasoo has been on a journey home, a journey back to her culture and herself.

She remembers the first time she went to a powwow in Montana when she was eight years old. She was amazed by the beautiful dancers in their bright regalia. She remembers the sounds of their jingle dresses and the smell of buckskin and Indian tacos.

In those early years, she started to understand that she was a part of this culture too, she said, a thought that both shocked and excited her. She felt proud of where she came from and who she was. She started sketching and painting the regalia, jingle and shawl dancers.

Omeasoo didn't continue with post-secondary education after high school, but said she graduated from the "school of life." About five years ago, at the age of 21, she picked up a needle and thread and taught herself to bead.

Omeasoo's niece, Renny Rose, models one of her necklaces. Omeasoo said she likes making bold jewelry that speaks for itself, the kind that makes you feel like you can rule the world. Photo courtesy of Omeasoo

Though Omeasoo had some relatives show her how to bead, truthfully, she said, Google and YouTube were some of her greatest teachers, and she has no shame in that. Omeasoo undeniably has the creative spirit and talent of her ancestors, many whom were artists, running through her blood, she said.

Her beadwork, bold, bright and beautiful, struts a style of its own and begs women who aren't afraid to make a statement to wear her pieces with pride.

Omeasoo said she didn't know much about running a fashion business before, but she's learning and she'll get there. Photo courtesy of Omeasoo

"Beading is my superpower," Omeasoo said. "Beading has given me confidence and strength."

As a woman, it's important to have something to cherish and be proud of, she said, and she found her source of security in beading. Omeasoo resents a culture that promotes competition between women, but believes everyone needs something in their lives they can be proud of.

Omeasoo said she makes two kinds of beadwork, more traditional pieces for regalia, and more contemporary pieces for fashion. Buyers often request custom pieces, like jewelled skull earrings, intricate teepee designs or remixed feathers. She usually starts with a central focus point, like a jewel or big bead, and branches from there, making it up as she goes, she said, letting it flow.

Omeasoo is always down to try something new. She isn't afraid to add sequins, layer materials, play with patterns, techniques and textures, but her willingness to experiment with design has come off as disrespectful to some with a more traditional relationship to beading, she said.

She thinks it's important to create new traditions and make room for new ideas, she said.

"My style doesn't always fit into a traditional aesthetic," she said, "but I'm out here creating my own dream."

Omeasoo said she's excited to see other artists taking strides forwards too. She loves seeing traditional items: beads, shells and regalia, being transformed and remixed. With a busy holiday season behind her, Omeasoo is excited for a new year, full of possibility. She thinks it might just be the beginning for Antelope-women Designs.

"Native women are really dreaming right now," she said. "I'm incredibly lucky to be a part of this generation that wants to branch out and find our own way. We want to represent our cultures in a new way. I'm right where I'm meant to be."

Chapter 2

Quw'utsun' Made

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"This all started with a gifted box of devil's club, but I don't know where it will end."

Arianna (Ari) Johnny-Wadsworth

Born in Duncan on Vancouver Island, Wadsworth is Quw'utsun' (Cowichan) and adopted into the Squamish Nation. She has lived her whole life on unceded Coast Salish territories, she told National Observer over the phone.

"A lot of my knowledge has just been in my DNA and I activated it," Wadsworth said. Photo courtesy of Wadsworth

A few years ago, Wadsworth had been working for an apothecary business. The job wasn't working out. On her 26th birthday, she decided it was time to quit. That same day, a friend gifted her a box of devil's club (a shrub native to the pacific northwest and a traditional medicine for many Indigenous peoples). When they gave it to her, they said "this is what you're going to do."

That day and that gift, changed everything, Wadsworth said.

At that moment, she didn't know exactly what would happen, but she had a prayer, she said. She took the paycheck from her last job and bought supplies for one product. She made enough from the first product to turn it into two, and now today, two years later, she offers more than 15 products in a business that has become fully financially self-sustaining. From that day on, she knew her work in this world involved working with traditional medicines.

"The initial integrity of carrying that prayer has followed and sustained me," she said.

Wadsworth now makes clay masks, salves, scented perfumes, lotions, lip balms, soy wax candles and more. Everything she makes is made from or incorporates traditional plant medicines, she explained. She combines essential oils with medicines like tobacco, sweetgrass and cedar to make her salves and skin-care products, and when she harvests and produces, she makes sure she has a good mind and heart.

"We pray before we touch the medicines," Wadsworth said, speaking about herself and her boyfriend Brandon Lee. "We go out to Mt. Baker and bathe in the hot springs, then harvest. It starts in the mountains. Before we start to prepare, we pray before and ask permission."

Many of Quw'utsun Made's non-Indigenous customers ask how and why the products are "so awesome," Wadsworth said, not always understanding that it's all about the spiritual energy and good vibes put into the medicines. Photos courtesy of Wadsworth

Outside of harvesting, making and selling her products, Wadsworth gives workshops and talks, sharing the knowledge she carries. She has taught people of all ages, from four to 84, she said. She has presented to doctors, counsellors, and academics, mostly on how to make devil's club salve or oils. Though she didn't plan on being a teacher, she said, she accepts the responsibility.

In her talks, Wadsworth tries to address the problem of over-harvesting medicines and mismanaging resources. She said both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can exploit the land and that "we all need to work towards restoring balance."

"It's sad to see people take more than we need for things that won't even go to use," she said, speaking about the over-harvesting of medicines like rosewood, cedar and devil's club. "I’m just trying to teach people to restore the elemental balance and to walk in a good way."

When giving workshops at the Northwest Indian College, Wadsworth was asked to make salve out of devil's club, to help elders with arthritis. From there, friends requested balms for dancers, weavers, beaders and carvers to help with aches and pain.

Devil's club salve. Photo courtesy of Wadsworth.

She also offers four perfumes, named in honour of the work and lives of Indigenous peoples. The perfumes are: The Carver, The Weaver, The Beader and Tzinquaw (Thunderbird). The Tzinquaw fragrance is inspired by a Quw'utsun' story that is represented and remembered by many dancers, she said.

"It's is a very powerful dancer. I think of my brothers and friends who are Tzinquaw dancers and that’s how I wanted to represent Quw'utsun'," she said. "They carry such good medicine in their dance."

The Tzinquaew fragrance can be used by men, women and all in between. It's gender neutral, made of tobacco, cedar, fur and bay leaf, and offers a clean fresh scent. Photo courtesy of Wadsworth

Wadsworth studied at a wellness school in Vancouver, where she got a degree in wellness counselling and life coaching. But no one handed her a diploma in traditional medicines, she said.

"It was in my bloodlines for the last thousands of years," she said. "That day I was gifted devil’s club, it hit me that I had these credentials in my bloodlines, this ancestral knowledge in my DNA. I created these recipes and had no idea what I was doing. Things just organically came out and I’d write them down on paper."

She has also learned a thing or two about the fast-paced grind of the business world. Reflecting on her life, she said she took some of her first lessons in business from her grandmother, who taught her how to knit when she was five.

"My grandma would sell what we knit. She'd give us $20 for it and wholesale it for $120," Wadsworth said, laughing. Her logo, three waves, is based off of her grandmother's knitting. She chose the design because it's universal, represents water and carrying things forward. Wadsworth's partner, Lee, made the design into a logo.

Though on paper, Lee, who Wadsworth calls her "other half," is not technically her business partner, he influences everything she does, she said. While Wadsworth makes salve, Lee makes candles and while she sleeps to prepare for a market the next day, he'll stay up trimming wick.

"We try to be in a good heart good mind, when we work, always sober," Wadsworth said, seen standing beside Lee, who's Korean and American, but shares many of the same teachings, she said. Photo courtesy of Wadsworth

Wadsworth has almost 4,000 followers on Instagram and says she spends a lot of time on social media, it's a big part of her personal and professional life.

She is a part of a large community of empowered Indigenous women, artists and entrepreneurs, sharing and promoting their work, and seeking inspiration from others, she said. Though she sees a lot of folks use the word "decolonize" across social media, she prefers instead to think about Indigenizing daily life. She said it feels strange to #decolonize, with an iPhone in one hand and Netflix streaming in the background.

"I think if we Indigenize our daily actions and connect with where we come from in small ways, it’ll help the whole world," she said. "I've connected with people from all over the world. It has never been like this before."

Chapter 3

Creations for Continuity

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"My plan is to create a bigger platform for other artists to share their work and collaborate," she said. "I love seeing other women turn their passion into careers."

Caroline Blechert

Blechert, who is Inuit and Inuvialuit, is originally from Yellowknife. Now 30, Blechert started to bead at a very young age, because she was alone and bored, she joked, over the phone.

Blechert is a Northern Inuvialuit Jewelry Artist whose unique designs, use of sterling silver and gold, porcupine quill and beadwork sells for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Photo by Peruzzo

"In the North, it's so cold, I spent a lot of time by myself at home," she said. "Being bored is actually really helpful. It inspires you."

When Blechert was nine years old, her mom noticed how much she loved to bead and she invited her friend over to teach her to work with quills. Though porcupine quills aren't traditionally from Inuit or Inuvialiuit culture, she explained, her people traditionally traded, shared and innovated their own work.

One of Blechert's favourite quotes comes from Métis Elder Louis Riel, who once said, "My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirits back." Photo courtesy of Blechert

"In our Indigenous cultures, we're not stagnant, we're constantly evolving," Blechert said. "And we're all connected. I think it's important to be open to sharing and learning from other cultures."

Though Blechert has learned from other Indigenous people, especially the Dene, she said, there's still a line between sharing techniques and traditions, and stealing. Cultural appropriation is a major topic in the art world and over the years, through a lot of hard work, Blechert has learned where she stands on the matter.

"When I work with a technique or learn something, I try to give back to the people or community that provided those teachings and acknowledge where they come from," she explained. "Stealing design for profit happens when people take without permission or without giving back."

Very early on in her art career, Blechert experienced people copying her designs and patterns. On a small scale, she said she learned to let it go and recognize that sometimes, people need do it as a part of their own healing journeys. Maybe they need it for something she doesn't understand, she said, but if it's on a massive scale and people are making a large profit off of her designs, it's not okay.

After leaving the North, Blechert hopped around a lot for school, she said.

She studied textile design and metalsmithing, and tried out environmental studies, but she always returned to her art and realized quickly that was what she was called to do, she said. She lives now in Portland, Ore. with her boyfriend, but plans to move back north at some point. She has yearned for her culture since she left, she said, and dreams of starting classes or even opening a school back home one day.

Blechert beads anywhere and everywhere. Because she has done it for so many years, it has become second nature for her. She beads alone and with company and has even had people ask her to put her beads away, she shared, laughing.

Lately, Blechert has started to focus on separate themed series, like her Watercolour series, Arctic Artist series, or Carmanah series, inspired by the dark old-growth forests of Canada. She also makes custom pieces by order and has gifted many pieces of jewelry, inspired by the person she's making it for.

Blechert custom-made this hummingbird necklace for model Erynne Gilpin. Photo by Blechert.

One of the most rewarding parts of her career, she said, is connecting and collaborating with other Indigenous artists. She has had Indigenous women she admires reach out and order custom pieces. Once, she had one of her favourite poets request a Thunderbird piece, an opportunity that allowed the women to share stories and teachings. Blechert loves any time she can learn about other people's cultures, she said.

She has also started a collective on her site, where she features other Indigenous artists like Erica Joan Lugt, something she hopes to continue to be able to do in the future.

"My plan is to create a bigger platform, for other artists to share their work and collaborate," she said. "I love seeing other women turn their passion into careers."

Chapter 4

Sharifah Marsden

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"I think every person should know how to do beadwork, know how to make a drum, make moccasins and our traditional regalia," she said. "In 10 years from now, I want to have had been part of that influence."

Sharifah Marsden

Marsden is Anishinaabe, from the Mississaugas of Scogog Island First Nation, but she grew up away from her home territories in the "poor part of urban Edmonton," she said over the phone. She's 40 years old today and moved to Vancouver in 2000, where she has lived ever since.

Though Marsden lives on Coast Salish territories and has been greatly influenced by the West Coast, she makes sure to use and incorporate her own designs. Photo courtesy of Marsden.

In 2008, Marsden took a Northwest Coast jewelry program taught by Dan Wallace at the Native Education College. Inspired by West Coast traditions, she said, she knew she wanted to incorporate designs from her own culture. When engraving on silver and gold, she drew inspiration from her beadwork, floral patterns and geometric shapes.

"I’ve been influenced by learning how to create my own sense of formline in our traditional designs and how to make really precise art pieces," she said. "With the engraving, you have to have clean lines, a really balanced image. It’s less of a free form on the west coast, so I had to learn how to use the constructs of the rules of formline, and use my own beadwork and geometrics on silver."

Marsden's work, which incorporates many animal and floral designs, can be found at the Latimer Gallery in downtown Vancouver, as well as the YVR airport. Photos courtesy of Marsden

Marsden said a lot of her beadwork teachers, mostly women, were Cree elders. Their style is phenomenal, she said, with intricate designs, beautiful regalia and "pounds and pounds of beads."

Marsden said her art, painting, mural work, beading and engraving, is a way for her to maintain her identity. Though she lives in a Western society, she said, her work connects her to her roots. Every time she makes a piece, she remembers the story or person the piece is designed for. She also seeks inspiration from her culture, cultural teachers and life experiences.

"I research old designs, from museums and galleries, and read traditional stories, to connect to a new design," she said.

In 2012, Marsden took a course in hollow form and stone setting, she said. When she's not engraving, she's painting, or collaborating on murals, like the one she worked on with partner Corey Larocque and mentor Jerry Whitehead this past summer.

She said when she paints, she is influenced and inspired by whatever is going on in her life at the time. She uses her work as an outlet and a way to tell her own story.

"Every painting has a story," Marsden said. When she paints, she shares pieces of her own story. Photo courtesy of Marsden

As she does she finds many people, especially Indigenous women, connect and relate to her messages. Her creativity, she thinks, comes from a long line of Indigenous resilience.

"Our people have always had endurance and resilience and we’ve always been creative people," she said. "We have always had the drive to be independent, so I think it’s a part of our own growing."

Marsden thinks more Canadians are starting to recognize the rise of Indigenous art and culture as well. Though it has always existed, she said, there's a new openness to learn about Indigenous peoples and culture. She thinks real relationship-building starts with education about the history of the founding of this country. Maybe her art will play a role in this education, she wondered.

Marsden plans to share her skills as she continues forward with her career, teaching Indigenous youth how to paint, bead and engrave. She wants to teach in a way that her students can pass on their knowledge as well.

"I think every person should know how to do beadwork, know how to make a drum, make moccasins, and our traditional regalia," she said. "In ten years from now, I want to have had been part of that influence."

Marsden sees young Indigenous peoples, especially young women, coming into their own and she's inspired by the rise of cultural pride and resurgence.

Chapter 5

CopperCanoeWoman Creations

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"I wanted to make things that I would wear. I have that Indian bling glamour style."

Vyna Brown

Vyna Brown started beading when she was a little girl. She could sit for hours beading. She would create simple pieces and her mom would bring her to the flea market to sell her pieces for very cheap. She always had an entrepreneurial spirit, she said over the phone.

"I always tell people I'm from Bella Bella. No matter where I go or where I have lived, that's my home." Photo courtesy of Brown

Brown is 31 years old, Heiltsuk and Nuu-chah-nulth, and grew up on the reserve in Bella Bella. She credits her aunties, granny and elders for teaching and inspiring the traditional forms of art she works to keep alive today.

Brown's aunt, Shirley Brown, is a master cedar weaver who comes from a long line of master cedar weavers. Her work is small, neat and precise, Brown explained. Brown's dad would take her and her sisters out on the boat when they were young and her Aunty Shirley and Aunty Tess would teach them how to harvest.

Brown's late granny on her mom's side was a master Nuu-chah-nulth grass weaver and beader, incorporating her own style and designs into her work. With her family's blessing, Brown wants to gather her granny's baskets and design book and document her design-work, breathing life back into her unique style.

"I want to continue that line. I want to learn how to weave in traditional Nuu-chah-nulth style," Brown said, "It's so intricate. It's such a skilled and beautiful art form that hasn't really been documented."

She also learned to bead, more traditional prairie and powwow style, through a humanities class at the Northwest Indian College, where she completed her undergraduate degree in Native studies and leadership. As she continued into her Master's degree in jurisprudence and Indigenous law from the University of Tulsa, she started beading again, to concentrate better, stay grounded and keep her body moving, she said.

She was shy, she explained, to start beading again these last few years. She considered herself an admirer of other talented beaders, but she didn't dream of trying to sell any of her own stuff. As her family prepared for their potlatch at the end of the summer, she decided to bead as much as she could, for giveaways. She made over 150 pieces.

As she shared her work online, people became increasingly interested in her jewelry and asked if she would consider selling. Brown said the ongoing support, specifically from other Indigenous women, inspired her to continue to create.

She started selling pieces after the potlatch, but she wanted to incorporate her own cultural influence, with coastal colours and materials, like abalone, mussel shell buttons, mother pearl, acoya and dentalium shells.

Brown said she uses red, black, cobalt blue, light blue and white, the five main colours of her Nation. "When I'm doing custom orders, that's what I use, because it's traditional," she explained. Photo courtesy of Brown

Abalone, Brown said, used to be a symbol of wealth for her people. Her dad grew up eating abalone in abundance. They would harvest it when they harvested seaweed, she said, but then commercial fisheries wiped them out. It was illegal to harvest abalone for most of Brown's life.

"My dad used to say, 'My poor babies, they never grew up eating abalone,'" Brown said. "They would eat it by the sack full. Then they used the shells for regalia, or tools, jewelry."

"Our ancestors were innovative and adaptive. Buttons came from Europe. If they didn’t have access, they created their own," Brown said. "Our masks, clubs, fishing gear, it wasn't just for art and decoration like today, it was for survival."

"When you're walking down the street, in our modern world, you still wanna rep your culture," she said. "But we don't share everything from our culture and we're not going to wear our regalia out, because it's for sacred or special occassions." Photo courtesy of Brown

When Brown looks for pieces to buy and wear, she said she wanted something with a hint of tradition, but fashionable enough that she could wear to a job interview or formal event. She said she's especially inspired by beaders who add a contemporary twist to their work, mixing their own aesthetic and style to traditional Indigenous practices.

"We live in a modern world," Brown said. "Our culture isn't frozen in time."

Today, Brown works at the Northwest Indian College, as an Indigenous Programs Co-ordinator and teaches part-time in the Native studies and leadership program, where she works with communities to keep their endangered art forms alive, she said.

One of Brown's Heiltsuk names is ƛáqvas gḷ́w̓a, meaning copper canoe woman, which is the name she uses on her social media accounts. This name gives her the inherent right to work with copper, she said.

"In our potlatch, copper is the symbol of wealth," Brown said. "You can’t potlatch unless you buy or have a copper shield made. It isn’t just a thing, it’s an ancestor, or a being."

Brown's family copper has its own name and spirit, she said.

She is responsible for caring for the copper while her family potlatches. She brings it out on the floor and dances with it with her brother, as his copper carrier, she said.

Brown said she buys beads or trades them, wherever she can. "Native women know how to utilize our resources," she said. "We may not always have the most money or access, but we have connections." Photo courtesy of Brown

Brown wants to continue to make more copper shields and big medallions. She is starting to play with beading in cedar roses, gifted to her by her aunty and plans to make big abalone earrings, using strands of abalone she picked up in Hawai'i. She loves stopping at new beading stores and mixing colours, trying new things.

Brown's source of inspiration is endless. She is inspired by expansive sunsets, fresh air when she's out on the boat, and the regalia she sees at potlatches. She wants to protect her creative process, to make pieces from the heart, not just for orders.

With a baby on the way, Brown is excited for what is sure to be a memorable year. She credits everyone who has made her success possible.

"I’ve had nothing but love and support and I’m so grateful for that," she said.