Catherine Blackburn Is Taking Traditional Indigenous Beadwork to New Places
The visual artist and beadwork jeweller on how she made it happen
Name: Catherine Blackburn
Job title: Visual artist and beadwork jeweller
From: Patuanak, Sask., English River First Nation, Treaty 10 Territory
Currently lives in: Terrace, B.C.
Education: BFA, University of Saskatchewan
First job out of school: Youth arts and culture coordinator in Morley, Alta.
For Catherine Blackburn, beading is more than just a business—it’s a way to connect to her Dene heritage. “When I actually have my hands on my work—when I’m making it, when I’m touching it—that for me is based in a history, in a culture and tradition, and it immediately connects me,” she says, adding that, truthfully, she doesn’t consider beading to be work. “It fulfills me and grounds me. Sometimes when I need a mental break, I actually go and bead.” She also considers it a form of resistance. “Not so long ago in Canadian history, colonialist ways banned us from our own cultures—everything from speaking our languages to practicing ceremony, dance and other art forms. Beading is part of our survivance story, and through it I celebrate the immense strength of our people. It becomes a tool and practice of resistance.”
Blackburn says her grandmother was an extraordinary beadwork artist, although she would never have thought of herself as such. Blackburn didn’t learn the art form until she was in her 20s, when she was taught by her aunt and a friend. To put her own spin on her work, she selects materials like vintage, antique and gold-plated beads. “It’s important that people understand that this is an evolution and also that we recognize and acknowledge the spirit, strength and designs of those that came before us,” she says. “We are not a people of the past—we’re a people of now.” Today, her beaded necklaces, earrings and cuffs are sold at retailers in Canada and the U.S. as well as through her own website.
The popularity of her work has meant that satisfying demand comes at the potential cost of disconnecting from her craft, and that’s not a compromise she’s interested in making. It’s very important to her that her pieces continue to be made by hand by Indigenous artists. In employing other Indigenous artists, she says her business is authentically supporting her greater community.
Through her success and international profile as a jewellery designer, one of Blackburn’s priorities is fighting for the proper representation of Indigenous people. “Having my practice as a platform, it’s very important that I always have my people in mind.”