When Kahnawà:ke’s COVID-19 task force mandated the closure of non-essential businesses and barred household visits at the end of December, Jessica Hernandez set out to bring her community together in the best way she knew how — through beadwork.
“Beading is a medicine,” said Hernandez, owner of Nicia’s Accessories in Kahnawà:ke.
Raised beadwork is an artisanal art form native to the Iroquois that dates back centuries. The 37-year-old business owner encouraged locals to take up a crafty challenge — beading an elaborate pattern she designed herself.
“I’ll try it, I’ll try anything once and I Ioved it. I just you know I can’t stop now!” said community member Joey Deer, who picked up a needle and beads for the first time last month.
Hernandez feared the pandemic restrictions would isolate community members and trigger loneliness.
“I was just concerned for the mental health of the community,” she said.
Weaving tradition and community, more than 100 participants beaded their way through the month-long lockdown in January.
“They stayed home, they stayed safe, they kept their community safe through beading,” said Hernandez. “Looking back on it, it was like, wow. That many people needed this?”
For first-timers and experienced beaders alike, the art is a form of therapy.
“It’s satisfying! You now? When you go further and further and it looks better and better and the time flies,” said Deer.
“While you’re in the moment it’s just you and these beads so it can have the tendency to bring out these emotions that you don’t necessarily feel on a day to day basis,” said young beader and small business owner Kakwitè:ne Jacobs. “It’s therapeutic.”
Hernandez says she always tries to tell people to try it.
“Especially those that might be struggling with different things — just try it because it’s going to ground you.”
It has even proven to bring families together despite being physically apart.
“My mother-in-law, sister-in-law, stepson, niece, we all did it!” said Deer. “We would show each other through Facebook and everything.”
What started as a simple challenge may even be up in a museum someday.
“When you look years down the road, all of these pieces are going to be looked at by some historian, some researcher, and what they’re going to find out is that everybody who beaded it beaded these items through a pandemic alone but together,” said Hernandez.
An installation highlighting the community’s beadwork challenge is already in the works for the near future to showcase the outstanding works of art.