(COURTESY KAYTLYN NADJIWON)
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As her tired hands string together the last bead for yet another unique creation, she looks down at her work and sees not only a charming earring she hopes someone will adorn themselves with, but a piece of herself.
Kaytlyn Nadjiwon, an Anishinaabe from the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, creates intricate beadwork of different shapes and sizes to spread beauty and culture to her clients across Canada.
Her journey with beadwork has been everything but straight and narrow.
Four years ago, Nadjiwon asked her mother, who has since passed, to teach her how to bead, as she wanted to learn through her family heritage. Due to certain barriers such as addiction and absence, her mother was not able to teach her.
However, her best friend Kole, another Indigenous beader on Instagram (@RustlingPine), has been a pillar in her beadwork development. Kole taught her many skills that she continues to apply to her work today.
Nadjiwon began beading part-time for a while, and practiced on and off without much consistency.
In the darkest of times, this trade helped her in a way she did not expect. Her mother was in the hospital for a week before she passed, and this, of course, was a time spent in dreaded uncertainty. When Kole brought her bead supplies during those trying times, she was surprised by how meaningful this craft became.
“I had just started beading a Monarch butterfly. It was very therapeutic, something to focus on,” said Nadjiwon.
Now a newly full-time beader, her journey continues to develop and grow. “In the last year, I really dug in my heels and have taken more creative risks,” she explained. “I’m actually getting good at this, and I can have my own style about it.”
Nadjiwon’s mother’s side is Indigenous and her father’s side is Italian, French and Ukrainian, although throughout most of her life she was told to dismiss her Indigenous side.
Part of her family, especially the men, often said to her, “don’t worry about that Native side of you, you’re 95 percent Italian.”
“Beading is definitely a way of taking back my culture,” she said in response to those memories.
She sells her beadwork on her Instagram account called @Softbutsturdy, a place where she shares everything from informative Indigenous infographics and new beadwork ideas, to horoscope memes and personal experiences.
Although sometimes difficult to navigate boundaries and personal separation, Nadjiwon expressed gratitude for this platform and the Indigenous Instagram community she has cultivated and connected with through beadwork.
“I would say beading is one of the only art communities that I have seen on Instagram where everyone lifts each other up so much,” she said with gratitude. Nadjiwon explained that in a way, it might seem counterintuitive, because they could compete with each other, but instead, they just continue to grow together.
Nadjiwon said that when one beader is having a sale, everyone posts and reshares it. “I sent earrings to British Columbia because somebody I follow shared it in their story, “ she explained.
For many artists and local entrepreneurs, box stores and fast fashion are the cause of most of their frustration with the industry.
“Full-time beaders are feeding their kids and paying their rent with the money made from years of learning and practicing,” she said.
It’s particularly exasperating when it comes to beading, an art form that is so intricate and time-consuming, she stressed.
“Box stores mass produce things that take hours and hours of planning, designing and beading and then sell them for like $15,” she said.
At the end of the day, after working many different retail jobs and trying various avenues, Nadjiwon is excited to see where beading full time will take her.
“It feels like I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said.