Native American Beadwork Is Inextricably Tied to Decolonization


In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we’re exploring what it means to be a resilient, young Indigenous person in 2020 and the changemakers working to decolonize our world. 

Today there are 574 federally recognized Tribes in the United States and 634 Indigenous First Nations north of the border in Canada. Each has its own culture, history, and land base. As sovereign nations that predate the formation of this country, they were all subjected to attempted extermination through disease, starvation, dispossession, and war. At least 90 percent of Indigenous people were killed by colonization. Some were completely wiped out. Those that survived were then expected to assimilate, or as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under President Benjamin Harrison, Thomas J. Morgan said in 1889, “The Indians must conform to the white man’s way, peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must,” and “conform to it or be crushed by it.” 

Cultural genocide, as far as Tribes were concerned, became settler government policy.

At the time, Native children were stolen from their families and communities and taken to boarding schools where they were indoctrinated with Christianity and abuse was commonplace. They were beaten for speaking their own languages and required to perform cheap labor for local settlers. Some never came home. Even up until 42 years ago, it wasn’t legal for us to practice our own spiritual beliefs on American soil.

But we endured, and carry on traditions in our hearts, passing them on in secret, and now openly, with pride.

“My favorite memories from my childhood are my grandmother and me sitting under the juniper tree, making jewelry,” says Elvira Nowlin, who is Diné (Navajo), of the Bįįh bitoodnii (Deer Spring clan), born for the Táchii’nii (Red Running Into the Water People clan) and lives in Phoenix, AZ. She makes jewelry from turquoise, a mineral held sacred by her people. “She would sing in Navajo, and I would sing or hum along, feeling the magic in her words. My grandmother taught me how to string beads at a very young age, so I had something to keep me busy. When I make jewelry today, I feel that magic. I feel closer to my ancestors and the holy people.”

Elvira knows just how important it is to honor her ancestors by preserving their ways and passing them onto future generations. Her daughter had her Kinaaldá a few years ago. Kinaaldá is a Diné ceremony that occurs after a girl’s first menstrual cycle and marks her entrance to womanhood. Her daughter is an introvert, so she was reluctant to participate. Elvira told her that the ceremony was not just a celebration of herself, but her ancestors, too.

“Until 1978, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act legalized traditional spirituality and ceremonies, it was illegal to have a Kinaaldá,” Elvira tells Teen Vogue. “My daughter is Navajo, Hopi, and Black. I shared that for her to be here, many people had to survive unimaginable circumstances. On her Black side, there were centuries of slavery, segregation, and oppression. Her Native ancestors had to survive Indian schools and The Long Walk. Regardless of the hardships they faced, they endured, they survived, and she is here today. Holding ceremony is saying we are still here, speaking our language, and practicing our traditions.”

Ray, who goes by BeadsAgainstFascism, also learned their craft from their grandmother. They are Indigenous nêhinaw ayâhkwêw (Cree) from mushkegowuk aski (Treaty 9) and live in Toronto. Through their beadwork and social media platforms, Ray shares messages of anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-capitalism with the public.





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