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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Tiny beads, lifetime lessons

Beading class part of effort to preserve cultural heritage


VERMILION RESERVATION- What better place to learn the art of beading than at the Bois Forte Heritage Museum. The museum is currently hosting a seven-week beading class (sorry, all spots are filled).

Not only are there amazing examples of historical beadwork on display in the museum, but the museum shop is now stocking one of the widest selections of beading supplies north of Duluth. The new focus on Native American crafts is thanks in part to a grant from the First Nations Development Institute.

Heritage Center Visitor Services Manager Martha Anderson said this grant not only is funding two sets of classes, one on beading and the second on moccasin-making (set for this summer), but also funded the startup costs of the beading and native craft supplies section of the museum store.

Downstairs in the museum classroom, it was definitely a busy afternoon overseen by teacher Ruth Porter. Porter, a special education teacher at North Woods School, is a skilled beader, but said this was her first time being paid to teach beading. Porter learned her own beading skills from Nett Lake artist Loretta Knutson, who used to have a shop in Orr, and still sells her wares at area sales and pow wows.

“I started beading when I was young,” she said. “Now there are very few Bois Forte beaders left, especially young ones.” Porter sells her beadwork and beaded regalia, often made to order. Projects take weeks to complete. She said she usually only tackles larger projects in the summer, when she has more time, and during the school year focuses on smaller projects like earrings.

“Beading has to be taught or it will die out,” she said.

“Bois Forte traditionally crafted their regalia with porcupine quills,” said Anderson. “Glass beads were introduced by traders to tribes in the 1800s.” The museum has beautiful examples of both types of work on display.

Mary Anderson, who was assisting Porter, said that beading is a skill that really needs to be taught in person.

“It is really hard to learn this online,” she said.

Porter had started the students out with a rather difficult project– a beaded barrette. The classes are being held every other Saturday, which gives the students time to work on their projects in between. While most started with a classic flower pattern, everyone added their own personal touch with colors and detail work. Students learned patience, as they worked with steady hands and eagle eyes.

The beading class showed that this craft can be a very social activity. Teenage girls giggled and told stories as they worked on their projects. Even when the beaded flower was completed, they still needed to work on the beaded edging, which required skilled needlework.

Porter said that in future weeks the class will be working on peyote chains, earrings, and possibly some loomwork.

“Once they master this first project,” she said. “They will be able to do any flat beaded project.”

While most in the class were doing traditional patterns, Kerie Porter was working on a Jurassic Park themed piece for her son. Beading, while traditional, can often reflect modern designs. Ruth Porter, while mostly completing traditional regalia, showed a picture of a “Hello Kitty” design she had done for her daughter.

The first-time beaders seemed at ease threading the tiny beads onto the needle and then attaching them, using tiny stiches, to the velvet background. Each had selected their own colors from the dozens and dozens available, and each was finishing up their own unique design.

The goal of the grant program, to facilitate the steady intergenerational transfer of traditional artistic knowledge in their communities, was clearly center stage. The afternoon was also a nice respite from the barrage of technology that is the life of teenagers in 2018.

Anderson said the Heritage Center will be sponsoring the second class, on moccasin-making, this summer. The Heritage Center is also looking at options for offering an open crafting time on Saturdays, and hopes the 15 who are participating in the beading class will continue to hone their skills, and then work on passing them along to others.

The Heritage Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission to the museum is by fee, but visitors are welcome in the gift shop. The museum is closed on holidays. The museum’s phone is 218-753-6017.