Beaded strawberries on door

Opening Doors to Reconciliation

January 13, 2017

In 2016, Six Nations Cayuga artist Samuel Thomas led 42 workshops in 8 communities across Ontario and Saskatchewan — bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples together to bead doors in an act of reclamation, healing and reconciliation. His Opening the Doors to Dialogue workshops were funded through the {Re}conciliation initiative, a partnership between the Canada Council for the Arts, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.

Sam Thomas
Sam Thomas leads an Opening Doors to Reconciliation workshop at Woodland Cultural Centre in Six Nations, July 16, 2016. Photographer(s): Claude Schryer

Opening the Doors to Dialogue

With Opening the Doors to Dialogue, I was able to help with the healing journey of survivors of the Residential Schools. There was one particular community in Saskatchewan where no one had ever before talked about their experience – not to loved ones, not to the Truth and Reconciliation process. They felt that no amount of monetary value would compensate what was taken from them. But they came forward in my process.

There were five generations of survivors together, just starting the healing process. It was difficult to bear witness to hurt in front of me. I’m an artist, but in my workshops, I’m also a facilitator, mediator, and an untrained counselor. I can’t just open a can of worms, then leave. I have to help people find closure. In that sense it was an exhausting project to continually absorb all that energy.

For each session, which included survivors and church officials, I set ground rules: No one is there to preach or convert. We’re there to listen and respond from the heart. I needed representatives from the church to acknowledge that even if they didn’t work in a residential school, they carry the burden for what was done. I needed survivors to accept that what happened wasn’t their fault.

Both parties have to be involved in any reconciliation. We need to open doors to dialogue – until we speak, we cannot be heard.

Beaded flowers and strawberries on red fabric

Beading as healing

I came to see beading even more as an act of healing after the loss of my mother. I had been beading with her for 35 years, and when she died, beading lost some meaning for me. I started questioning it… asking myself if I wanted to continue to do it. When working on the Wiping Away the Tears project, I used glass beads, much like condolence beads (“open your throat, wipe tears from your eyes, clear your ears.”) It helped through the grieving process and to rediscover my purpose.

I used beading for reconciliation for the first time in Kenya, where colonials from the Church had collected cultural objects and burned them in front of the Indigenous peoples. There, I brought them together and I worked with women there to recreate what had been stripped from them.

Reviving, giving new meaning to a lost art

I got interested in beading 40 years ago (I was 13), when I began working with Theresa Meness and her daughter Juliette Meness Ferguson, from Maniwaki, who made traditional Algonquin hand-tanned deer hides.

Around that time I began to notice and look closely at moccasins in museum collections.

Beaded flowers on lilac fabric

I asked to go behind the scenes at institutions such as the Canadian Museum of Civilisation (now Canadian Museum of History) and the Royal Ontario Museum. Even at that young age, because of my dedication to reviving the art, I never had a problem getting permission to look closely at this work.

I was fascinated with Iroquois beading, but no one was doing it so I had to teach myself. I would look for beaded works in second-hand shops. At that time, the objects had no real value as antiques. They were just seen as things “Indians” made for tourists. You could buy a beaded work for $5 to $10 that would now cost hundreds of dollars. I’d buy them, painstakingly dissemble them, figure out how they were sewn, then put them back together.

I had a strong feeling even then that I needed to do something to revive this work. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to see some of the work get off the kitchen walls and onto gallery walls. I continue now to take it beyond that – I’m always looking at how I can push the work.

Samuel Thomas of the Six Nations of the Grand River (Cayuga) is an award-winning artist known in Canada and internationally for his work reviving Iroquoian beadwork. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the British Museum, the Canadian Museum of History, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, along with museum, gallery and private collections in the Netherlands, Germany and Australia. In 2016, he was honoured with winner of the Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award.

Tagged As Artist Stories Indigenous {Re}conciliation