I met this lovely lady on Instagram last year in my search for a “celebration piece”. I had just published White Wolf and I wanted to find an artist who practiced the traditional ways of crafting. I did an “Ojibwe” search and I stumbled on her page. I completely fell in love with her work! It wasn’t just her stunning beadwork that captured my heart, it was the stories that went with the pictures of her art pieces. I was smitten even further by the culture and her moccasins lulled me deeper.
As a writer, it’s our responsibility to make sure we have our facts straight. It’s especially important when writing about the culture of a First People that many don’t recognize is alive and thriving. Jaymie’s moccasins inspired a “yet-to-be-written” moccasin scene in the new book, Letters From the Dragon’s Son. It’s still unclear how “big” this scene will be, but the thread of it has already been woven through the story that’s already there. Researching Native culture in the seventeenth century is difficult and most times it’s hard to find matching sources. Sometimes it’s difficult to find information at all, especially when researching clothing and functional art pieces. I finally mustered up the courage to message Jaymie and *gulp* just ask. What better place to go for information than from the artisan herself? Thankfully, Jaymie didn’t block me or run for the hills when I messaged her. She graciously agreed to become my teacher and she took time out of her busy, crafting schedule to answer some of my questions. I hope you find them as enlightening as I did.
Becoming an author has stretched me beyond what I thought imaginable and it has led me to some AMAZING people. Jaymie Campbell is one of them. I think after reading our interview you’ll agree. Miigwech (thank you), Jaymie!
1) I’d love to hear a little about you!
Okay! I was born in Jasper, Alberta in 1988. I lived there until I was about 3 and then moved to Southern British Columbia. When I was ten, my parents wanted my brother and I to grow up closer to family and culture, so we decided to move back to my father’s reserve, Curve Lake First Nation, in Ontario. My father is Ojibwe, or Anishnaabe, from Ontario, and my mother is a third generation Canadian. Her ancestors are Scottish, Polish and Ukrainian. Living on the reserve was very tough, it was a massive culture shock from the small community in BC I had grown up in. There was a lot of inter-generational trauma, substance abuse and lateral violence. My father went back to University in his 40’s and completed an undergraduate degree in Native Studies, the first in my family to do so. After about three years we moved just off the reserve to a small farming community while we finished school. When I graduated I moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario (which is very traditional territory of the Ojibwe people) and I went to Lakehead University. I completed a dual degree in Biology and Natural Sciences, and Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism. In my final year, I did an undergrad study with the Dene in the North of Canada, and it was there my identity was reignited. Following school, I found my way to a small Alberta Cree community where I became their Consultation Manager – I basically am like a liaison that works with industry and government, and helps to build capacity in the community – and have been with them for six years. I am happily married to my husband Simon and we have a dog, Ollie.
2) I LOVE your beadwork!! How long have you been crafting? What gave you the courage to start your own business?
Thank you! I have been beading since I was a little girl, though not quite like this. My mother had the opportunity to learn from many of my family members who all passed away before I got to know them, and she always made a point to teach me. After I left the reserve, I really disconnected with my culture and my identity, which was very easy for me because I am physically very light skinned and look a lot like my mother. When I traveled up north, I realized what a huge part of me it was. Something put me here, in this Cree community now, where I have had the privilege of learning from a very traditional community and being mentored by some really incredible leaders. I entered into an Aboriginal Healing Therapy Program a couple of years ago, and something inspired me to start crafting again. As I work through my identity struggle, of always feeling ‘not quite Native enough’ I realized then when I am practicing as an artist is when I feel the most connected to my culture and my identity. I also feel very connected to my ancestors, almost like they are working through me, and it makes me feel at peace. My grandmother and great grandmother were very strong independent women, as is my mother. My aunt was the first woman Chief ever in Canada. I have some strong women in my ancestry and I am meant to follow them somehow. So professionally I guess I have been an artist now for about two years. It was important for me to show young people you can be successful practicing your traditions.
3) I’ve NEVER been outside of the U.S. Tell me a little about the part of Canada that you live in.
I live in the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I live in a very small remote community called Grande Cache, but the aboriginal community is called the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation (which means Rocky Mountain People). Their history is quite fascinating because they were displaced in the early 1900’s by the Federal Government when they began Jasper National Park (you can check our website for details). Because they relocated somewhere so remote (we are 1.5 hours from the nearest town), they didn’t feel the massive effects of colonization quite as early as some other southerly communities. This means they held on to a lot of their culture and traditions, and still practice a lot of what has been lost in other communities.
4) We’ve talked briefly before about you learning your craft(s) under the Cree. Can you share a little about the Cree people? Are their traditions closely related to the Ojibwe? How are they the same? Different?
That is a tough question. There are also many different tribes within both Cree and Ojibwe, which all have their own traditions. A lot of it is community specific. The Rocky Mountain Cree have different traditions than the Plains Cree, also different dialects of the language. In Ojibwe, we have a different creation story and different spirits in our stories than the Cree people do. In my community, our medicine wheel, the four colours, are white, red, black and yellow. Each colour represents an animal, a direction and a stage in life. In Cree, sometimes this is the same but sometimes it is completely different. It also really depends on who mentored you and which elders you learn your teachings from. I was raised that all animals have a meaning, and that when you smudge you are supposed to smudge the bottom of your feet because that is how you travel on mother earth. I haven’t witnessed those same teachings in Cree, but that is not to say they don’t exist. We also have different medicines, though some are the same. I have been to certain ceremonies both Cree and Ojibwe, and fundamentally they are similar, but there are elements of them that are very different. I know this probably doesn’t help, but it is the truth!
Traditional teachings from elders are also really unique. In my experience, there is no hand holding and no coddling. They will demonstrate for you – usually really fast and not step-by-step. You either get it or you don’t – and they don’t go out of their way to give you accolades you haven’t earned. When I first started beading I brought a piece down to the elder who was teaching me and she took one look at it and threw it in the garbage and told me to start again. It might sound harsh, but it pushed me to be better and keep practicing. Usually when the elders look at my beadwork they will look at the underside of it first. They check the thread work to make sure it is tight and that every bead is sewn down – some don’t even look at the actual work. It is the most nerve wracking part of being a beadwork artist is when it is inspected by the elders, because they are the masters. I thrived being taught this way, and I am very thankful for every second I have gotten to spend with the elders – it is a gift. I worry that the generation that is coming up has become too sensitive and they shy away from these teachings because they don’t get enough positive reinforcement all the time. You have to be tough and you have to keep trying. You have to be able to take the criticism and get better.
5) You mentioned you were Ojibwe. Do you celebrate or hold on to any of the customs of the Ojibwe?
I do, yes. I was raised with a lot of my spiritual traditions and I hold onto those. I attend ceremony whenever I can and practice the use of my medicines daily. I am Ojibwe, though to my people I would identify as Anishnaabe.
6) I’ve seen Ojibwe used in some of your posts on Instagram. Do you or anyone else that you know speak Ojibwe?
I took Ojibwe all through high school. It is a difficult language to hold onto if you are not practicing it everyday. I know a few elders back home who are our ‘language keepers’. My dad and I know a few words, mostly animals, relatives, commands that sort of thing. I usually use my Ojibwe name ‘Maang Kwe’ on my page, which means ‘Woman of the Loons’.
7) I learned VERY little in school about Native American culture. What would YOU like to see taught in schools about your culture?
I think a comprehensive and accurate telling of the history would be a great place to start – which would be different between the US and Canada. I think it is important to teach that there are many different cultures within Aboriginal Peoples (Dene, Cree, Ojibwe, Navajo, Blackfoot, etc). It would be neat to teach people about some of the teachings around our connection to the land and mother earth. The teachings about our relationship with the environment could go a long way to reconnecting youth with the land and animals. I also think it is important to teach people about where communities are at now, and what their aspirations are. We always talk about native culture in a historical way, but it is very much alive.
8) I heard that a baby’s first moccasins are important to the Ojibwe. Can you explain this important milestone?
There are parts of this that are so sacred I cannot share. The main part though is that Ojibwe people believe that gifting a baby their first pair of moccasins is really important because it wishes the baby well on their journey through life. The feet is also how we travel and most often how we are physically connected to the land. Whenever I enter ceremony I never ever wear shoes – but moccasins are ok.
9) Can you explain your moccasin making process?
This is quite a long process! It always begins with the hunt. Many native people offer tobacco in exchange for taking something from the land, whether it be an animal or harvesting medicinal plants. Once the animal is killed, there is a vast amount of ceremony that may or may not take place depending on the hunter or the tribe. Usually, tobacco is left. The hide is taken off the animal in one large piece – which is a skill in itself. You have to be careful not to get knife marks or scrapes on the hide while it is being taken off or it will be damaged. Once that happens, the hide is tanned traditionally with the animals brains. I am NOT an authority on hide tanning, and because I am learning the process of hand tanning right now, I don’t feel it is appropriate to share the detailed process. The hide is stretched onto a large frame and from there it is scraped down to just the skin. From there is goes through a variety of washing, smoking, and brain tanning until it is ready. For a really talented, well trained individual you can do the whole process in a couple of days, but I have mostly seen people work together and finish a hide in 3-4 days. From there, I purchase the hide from the elders and get to work. I always smudge the hide before I cut into it as a sign of respect for the animal giving its life. I will usually offer tobacco also. I start by getting a tracing of the person’s foot and I cut my patterns. I like to talk to the individual about what colours they like or patterns they have in mind. Some people give very specific instructions, while others give me creative freedom. When I am really focused, usually a pattern will just come to me for the individual and I know it is meant for them. I start the process with the bead work always – it takes the longest and is the most complex. The traditional Cree style of beading is to use two needles and threads, and you sew down every individual bead. You eventually adapt some of the really traditional teachings to your own style – some of the materials I use, like the material I use for tracing my patterns, are new materials that the elders wouldn’t have had access too. I always keep the integrity of the beadwork the same, I sew down every individual bead, but sometimes I have to adapt the materials or even the methods to have my own style. The front part of the moccasin where the beadwork is is called the vamp or the tongue. Once that is finished, I start sewing together the actual shoe part. This take a couple of days usually, only because it is very hard on your hands to be hand sewing hide all the time. My fingers get sore and I have to take breaks if I have been doing a lot of it. You sew the moccasin inside out, and once it is all sewn together you flip it right side out. Many different cultures, people and artists all have different patterns and methods for moccasin making. Mine has become sort of a hybrid of a Metis pattern with some Cree and Ojibwe modifications that make them my own style. The higher booties though, called wraparounds, are traditionally a Cree style. Once they are flipped right side out, I add the fur or the hide cuff, depending on the style I am making. I source all my fur locally from local trappers. Moccasins should always be about one size too small because the hide will stretch them into the perfect size.
10) What would you like to see of the Ojibwe passed down to the next generation? The Cree?
The language. I think that is paramount. I never got to fully learn my language, and everyday it is like there is a part of me missing. Our languages are dying off here incredibly fast and we will lose a part of our identity if it does. I also think the arts are incredibly important, our games too. I recently met a woman who still practices birch bark biting (so cool) and there are only a handful of people left who know how to do it. We have incredible art mediums – quilling, basket making, weaving, beadwork, painting, dying, horse hair wrapping, tufting – and it would be a shame to lose our art. It is also important to pass down things like making dry meat. I also think we need to focus on passing down the information about our medicinal plants as well. There is a crazy wealth of knowledge here that is mostly orally passed down because of fear it will be stolen, but it is deep and powerful stuff.
11) How do you feel you are viewed as a Canadian Native? Do you feel supported? No?
This is a really tough question for me to answer. I have a really unique take on this, because though I was raised in my home community and I practice a lot of my culture, I look white. I don’t experience the blatant racism that exists to my face, but I experience a different kind where people say and do really cruel things in front of me because they assume I am not native. I have seen my father and my friends be racially profiled, and it is painful. It is really complex here in Canada too because we have an Indian Act. The act governs a lot of what can and can’t happen on reserves – an example of this is the act has a way of determining who gets ‘Indian Status’. They are literally cards and a number – called status cards – that define who is considered and ‘Indian’. It is really really complicated, but many reserves have their membership dictated by these same status requirements. It was essentially designed to eventually ‘breed out the Indian’ in Canada. My home communities’ membership is this way, and because my mother is non-native I do not qualify for status, which means I cannot be a member of my own community. I cannot vote in elections for our leadership and I would not qualify to live on reserve. It is really tough and it really messes with your head, and there are A LOT of people who are in this same boat.
But I also think things are getting better. I work for this really amazing progressive community. They work a lot on reinvigorating their governance and building their traditional laws into a constitution. I think awareness in Canada is starting to build, and we have more and more native people getting educated in the western systems and working to rebuild really happy and healthy communities.
12) What are the concerns you have pertaining to your culture?
I think I covered most of this already! I worry about our youth – feeling very lost and displaced. We have more of our populations living in urban centres now instead of reserves. I know first hand how difficult it is to not feel like you belong anywhere or you are ‘not Indian’ enough or ‘not white’ enough. I worry about high numbers of youth suicides we have, and I think reconnecting with our cultural values and fostering those in our youth would go a long way to helping our next generations.
13) What would you like to say to this generation of Canadians/Americans who may not know anyone who is Native?
Keep an open mind and an open heart and try to learn. Look past the stereotypes you may have heard. Read some of the excellent books that have been written about our history and about our culture. Support tourism initiatives, artists and locations that are authentic and benefit native people. Do not be afraid to ask questions – we cannot rebuild and reconcile until we understand each other. Most importantly, we still exist, and not just in a historical context. We have a vibrant, living culture and communities.
14) Are there any terms that are offensive to you? Here in the U.S., no one is certain what to call our First People. American Indian, Indian, Native American. What would you say to someone who is struggling in this area?
I find ‘Indian’ very offensive when used to refer to my people. I know it is an accepted term in the US, and I know friends that it does not bother. This is a difficult question, but I always tell people that Aboriginal and Indigenous are usually safe. I am not American, so I do not want to comment on what they might feel comfortable with. I would always self identify as Anishnaabe, but I don’t find Aboriginal, Indigenous or First Nation (another term we use in Canada) offensive. I also think Native is ok, and if I am travelling I will identify as Native American because it is easy to understand.