Flora Weistchee’s beaded artwork is dedicated to all Indigenous women

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“It came to me in a dream in 2015,” said recent Facebook phenom Flora Weistchee, artisan and designer of a beading project called My Grandmother’s Garden. In her dream Flora was at her kitchen table with a full caribou hide spread out in front of her and her late grandmother, Helen Weistchee, sat across from her.

Her grandmother spoke but Flora couldn’t hear what she was saying. Looking down, she noticed three large floral designs in the middle of the hide.

When she woke that morning Flora started drawing the designs she had seen in her dream. These would become the three main flowers and the beginning of her three-year beading project covering a full caribou hide. Flora finished My Grandmother’s Garden on August 28.

My Grandmother’s Garden is set to be unveiled at the opening ceremony of the new Robin’s Nest woman’s shelter in Waskaganish on September 18.

During the research stage of her undertaking, Flora looked for a similar project where a full caribou hide was beaded on, but she couldn’t find any. Although creating art on caribou hides is an old tradition, Flora said she couldn’t find any projects like the one she was planning.

“Out of thousands and thousands of pages all I found were painted caribou hides. I think this is truly a one-of-a-kind process,” she said.

“I wanted to take beading to the next level. My family knows me ­– whenever I try to do something I try to do it to the extreme.”

Since starting the project that morning in 2015, Flora has frequently posted her progress on Facebook and has received a lot of attention for it. But the story really started back in 1979.

That year, her father, Sanders Weistchee, a traditional hunter and trapper, got two caribou. At the time he noticed the herds were declining so he made the decision to stop hunting them. He never hunted caribou again.

Flora’s mother, Florrie, kept the hides in storage for 36 years until she came across them by accident while going through some containers. Florrie wanted to use it for snowshoe weaving but Flora asked her mother if she could have one of the hides.

“She gave it to me, usually she would say no when I asked her for moose hide. I guess she thought I would waste it,” Flora said.

Delighted, Flora brought the hide back to Montreal where she lives with her family and kept it for almost a year. In 2015, she was going to cut it up to make patterns for purses, moccasins and gloves.

One night she was looking at floral patterns online and came across works by Métis artist Christi Belcourt.

“I was fascinated with her artwork,” Flora said. “It’s almost like beading but painted.”

That night her grandmother appeared in her dream. There was a hole in the hide so in her dream Flora asked her grandmother about it.

“I asked her, ‘Gookum, what am I going to do with that hole?’ She spoke but I couldn’t hear her. The only thing I heard was ‘ihiipii’ – meaning net. So I made a dream catcher.”

My Grandmother’s Garden features over 50 beaded floral designs including diagrams with almost 100 beaded patterns in total. On average, each pattern took three weeks to complete.

The large central design was the first to go on and the last pattern beaded on was a silver hair braid tied with a purple ribbon encircling the dream catcher.

Each pattern has a story behind it that holds a special meaning. The silver braid represents all the grandmothers in the Cree Nation and across Canada.

“My grandmother used to love getting her hair combed and braided,” Flora said. “It’s so nicely tied up and it represents that we have to take care of our Elders because they took care of us.”

Flora dedicated My Grandmother’s Garden to all Indigenous women. Each flower on it is a different shape and size and no two are the same.

“Because all women are different. They’re all raised differently and they are all unique in their own way,” she explained.

All four elements are represented on Weistchee’s work including a turtle in reference to Turtle Island.

“It’s kind of like my version of our family creation story.”

The three central designs represent her grandmother and her two sisters, Hannah and Minnie McLeod, who came to Waskaganish from Mistissini as teenagers. The flower in the middle was for her grandmother and the two beside it for the sisters.

“That’s where it started, with the three main flowers and it grew,” Flora said with a laugh, pun intended.

She said some of the patterns, like her grandmother’s, are dedicated to specific women such as her mom, Waskaganish Elder Mary Katapatuk, Weistchee’s late aunt Minnie Wesley and the late Gertie Murdoch.

A design of a butterfly surrounded by a pink ribbon is dedicated to Flora’s friend Sarah, who recently passed away from breast cancer.

“I wanted her story to live on in My Grandmother’s Garden,” Flora said, adding that she also did it for Sarah’s husband and sons.

Flora said she was overcome with emotion upon completing the project. “Once I finished the last beadwork I just sat there for a while. I looked at it and started crying. I truly believe this was one of my purposes in life because of the dream I had.”

Flora thinks her grandmother wanted her to do this project to honour her father’s decision to stop hunting caribou for the greater good of the herd. She says her grandmother came to her because her father’s caribou was killed in 1979, the year of Flora’s birth.

Flora said she hopes when women view her piece they will feel inspired to bead, empowered and proud of who they are as strong Indigenous women.

When asked what she will do with her time now, Flora replied with a laugh. “I still have the second hide.” She then added that she will be taking time to concentrate on her career and family.

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