World’s largest Métis beadwork symbolizes survival of a unique people

Friday, March 4, 2016
When Jennine Krauchi was first asked to create the world’s largest Métis beadwork for the Museum, she hesitated.

When Jennine Krauchi was first asked to create the world’s largest Métis beadwork for the Museum, she hesitated.

“I had never done anything like that before,” says Krauchi, the Winnipeg artist who has crafted beaded clothing for prime ministers and art pieces for museums in Ottawa, Scotland, France and Oregon. “I was excited but I was also scared. I could not get my head around it.”

She started by sketching out a rough drawing on a huge sheet of paper, with nine large flowers including a giant rose that symbolizes the survival of the Métis people. Unbeknownst to her at the time, her work would eventually include the names of nine road-allowance communities destroyed in the name of progress.

The stunning finished piece is seven metres tall, weighs over 27 kilograms, and hangs in the Museum’s Indigenous Perspectives gallery – part of an exhibit about the displacement of landless Métis people who had built their communities on government road allowances. The prose of renowned Métis author Maria Campbell is also featured.

Krauchi and her mother, Jenny Meyer, used thousands of antique fur-trade era beads to complete the distinctive floral pattern that characterizes Métis beadwork. “I love the colours of that time, the muted or ‘greasy’ hues of those old Italian and French beads,” says Krauchi. Called the “flower beadwork people” by many First Nations, Métis artists have long been part of Canada’s unique cultural heritage – combining influences of French silk embroidery with Indigenous beading inspired by nature.

A woman wearing a Métis sash stands at a museum exhibit featuring beaded artwork
Photo credits: John Woods/CMHR

Children from Brooklands School and members of the Métis community in Manitoba contributed, in part, to the project that took eight months to complete for the Museum’s opening in 2014.

The result was a giant “octopus bag” – so named for the eight decorative tabs that hang from its bottom. This type of bag, always richly embroidered with beads, was an essential part of a Métis man’s wardrobe in the 1800s. Also known as a “fire bag,” it held tobacco, tinder for fire and pipe materials, and was worn tucked under a waist sash.

The last few inches of beading were done with the help of the young great-grandson of Métis Elder George Fleury – who was displaced from his home when the road-allowance community of Ste. Madeleine, Manitoba was destroyed in the 1930s. By eerie coincidence, this last piece of beadwork happened to be situated directly beside the name of the community of Ste. Madeleine on the artwork.

A hand touches a piece of floral Métis beadwork.
Photo credits: John Woods/CMHR

Krauchi herself grew up steeped in Métis traditions with a mother who hunted, fished and trapped. Beadwork was always going on all around her. Krauchi says that, although the designs are always floral, there are distinctive styles for each Métis community and artist.

“The women did it for their families, to show their love for their families, whether it was little moss bags or big beaded jackets. The nuns taught us French silk embroidery, but we learned the natural aspects from our Indigenous ancestors. If you look at my flower stems, you’ll see the little ticks that look like mouse tracks in the snow.”

“I believe that the most important thing for us as Michif1 people is land. If we have land, then we have a place to nurture our future generations. Otherwise, we’re road allowance people all of our lives.

“You know, we get kicked out of one place, we pack up and move, they burn our houses down and we go someplace else. And it’s really hard to preserve a place when you’re constantly losing things to fire.

“I think it says a lot about our people that we still have a strong sense of culture and that our language is alive. I have never been in a Michif community where the culture is dying. Ever.”

--- Maria Campbell, author

1 Michif is the traditional language of the Métis