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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Deborah Ratt makes jewelry in a more traditional way

BY Joshua Janke Sep 3, 2023

One name that stood out in the schedule at Montreal’s 33rd First People’s Festival was Deborah Ratt and Cree-Ations. Hailing from Eeyou Istchee, the artist was present at the Place des Festivals the entire event.

This meant that whatever day you attended, Ratt was there, representing Cree culture and art in the heart of downtown Montreal. Set up under a large teepee, Ratt’s jewelery venue was hard to miss, but not for the reason you might think. 

Early on the festival’s first day, a large crowd already surrounded Ratt’s pop-up shop, a gathering one might associate with a more active spectacle, like a dance or drum circle. Cameras were out and people were sitting, standing and some even making jewelry. Most jewelry stands usually have signs stating “Ask for assistance” or “Do not touch” – but not Cree-Ations. 

It was obvious that something special was going on. People were not waiting in line or crowding the display; instead, they were happy to be there and not planning on leaving anytime soon. The line between costumer and creator was pleasantly blurred in a calm and respectful way. Personal conversations and laughter made it feel more like an urban art gallery – no pressure to buy, but you probably will end up leaving with something special. 

This was going to make it hard to pull Ratt away for an interview. Not only was she selling her jewelry and answering customer questions, but giving one-on-one workshops to customers who wanted the personal artistic experience. For $30, the guiding knowledge of Ratt and her vast variety of materials were at the disposal of first-time bead weavers, who left with a hug from the teacher and wearing their own creations and a bright smile. 

Helene Blake, Ratt’s friend and coworker for the week, told The Nation that she was “mainly here to be the workshop instructor” but “always ended up helping with everything” because “that’s the way it goes around here.” 

Blake and Ratt ran the venue alone and were busy with the steady flow of visitors, but it did not show on their smiling faces. They took the time to speak with every person who strolled by. It was Blake who made eye contact with me and welcomed me into the “back store” – lawn chairs and tables set up behind those covered with beadwork and jewelry. “The woman you are really looking for is busy right now,” said Blake, motioning to Ratt, who sat with a young girl holding a needle full of bright beads. 

“That family specifically asked for Deborah to be their workshop instructor so of course she did it… we did a little switch,” explained Blake. “She is really amazing at what she does, they are lucky to be taught by her.” 

Seeing how busy it was, Blake and I decided that I should return later in the week to interview Ratt. So, there I was, back at the jewelry stand on the festival’s last day, with the crowd even bigger than the first time. This is what happens when a creator connects with their customers. They come back and bring their friends. Indeed, I felt on closer terms with Ratt and Blake when I returned the second time. 

“Ah Josh, there you are. I need a break, let’s do this. Do you mind if we do it right here, the drums won’t be too loud? Just in case we get another rush of customers,” Ratt said with a laugh.

“It’s a simple story,” stated Ratt. “A lot of us left home when we were young because of our history. Indigenous people have had a hard history. I left home when I was 14 and I spent a lot of my life running, running away because of all the hurt I had inside of me. But that’s not what I wanted to do with my life, I always knew I wanted to come back home. I just couldn’t because I was not happy inside.” 

Ratt says that it took a spiritual awakening to bring her back to her childhood home in Chapais. “To go home meant to go back to the place of my childhood… this sure was something.” 

When she first arrived, Ratt decided to “start from scratch” and began creating jewelry with a new and focused passion. “At first, I just did a few pieces. I took it slowly, just appreciating being home and working on my art in nature.”

Then things began to progress. In 2009, Ratt got the idea for Cree-Ations and within a year, her jewelry company became a reality. Ratt says starting Cree-Ations is what helped her “move forward” and stopped her from going “up and down in life like a yo-yo.” 

“When I founded Cree-Ations, I also found who I was as a person,” she said. “I had been searching for something like that for a long time and now I finally could tell myself ‘This is who you are.’” 

The full year it took to prepare the public launch showed her there is a difference between discovering something in yourself and being ready to express it to the world. She says that after you find a passion, you need to make sure you have the emotional and social foundations which will allow you to bring this passion to life and share it with others. 

In 2010, she focussed on spreading her business with her own two feet and word of mouth, traveling to powwows across the country and then joining forces with the Salon des métiers d’art du Québec. 

Now, in 2023, Ratt has sold her jewelry across Canada and her pieces are worn around the world, a significant feat for an artist who promoted her business only through face-to-face connections. Ratt is largely self-educated in her bead-weaving techniques. “I completed two-and-a-half sections at college. You need six to get a degree. It just wasn’t for me, but it gave me a great base to start Cree-Ations.” 

Ratt said the main reason she did not wish to pursue organized education in jewelry is because most programs in Canada only teach techniques for jewelry made with metal, not the beads, bones and leather Ratt loves to use. 

“Jewelry wasn’t for me because I like traditional bead weaving so much. You are only working with metal in jewelry college. The art techniques I use in my jewelry are not taught in organized school settings. There are no bead weaving courses offered in public education, no courses to teach the next generation what I do.” 

This is why Ratt will be expanding her Cree-Ations business this fall, as she plans to launch an online bead-weaving course in late September. “Cree-Ations Designs will be a website that allows me to continue to do what I love and share it with people who love what I do.” 

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.