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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Emerging opportunities for Cree artisans

BY Patrick Quinn Dec 16, 2022

With a resurgence in traditional arts and craftwork, Cree artisans are finding exciting new avenues to showcase their talents. The Cree Native Arts and Crafts Association (CNACA) is expanding its inventory as it prepares to open new stores both online and in Montreal in 2023. 

In September, CNACA product manager Jason Otter led a community tour to introduce the Wachiya online store, which is expected to open later this winter. By next Christmas, CNACA intends to launch a brick-and-mortar location on Rue St-Paul, the oldest street in historic Old Montreal. 

“We are buying arts and crafts so we can open a store as quickly as possible,” said Gaston Cooper, CNACA executive director. “They’re going to renovate the whole building, which will take at least until next fall. It needed to be located where the tourists are, where the ships come in.”

The first Cree-owned Wachiya store in Val-d’Or closed its doors in the early 1990s with the hope of eventually reopening. CNACA was officially incorporated in 2004, although its mission of sustainably expanding Eeyou Istchee’s cultural economy was written into the JBNQA.

While the association has amassed over $150,000 worth of inventory over the years, it’s now looking to establish a reliable supply chain with local artists and artisans. To transport products throughout the territory, it’s currently in negotiations with Air Creebec to deliver to Chibougamau, the airport nearest CNACA’s head office in Ouje-Bougoumou.

“Local arts committees in each community will be the voice of the artists and artisans,” Cooper told the Nation. “They’ll also tell us which ones are market-ready, who we could bring to future shows down south to have greater exposure. We’re planning by next summer to start showcasing some artists on-site at trade or gift shows.”

To promote the online store, CNACA is launching a social-media campaign, an essential medium for emerging artists. While creating a website had previously been considered too costly, Cooper said that it’s become a “no-brainer” today.

Wachiya will offer traditional crafts like moose-hide mittens, mukluks and moccasins; tools like mocotaugan carving knives, paddles and wooden shovels; novelty items like ornaments for the car or Christmas tree; ribbon skirts and other clothing; beadwork; jewellery and modern art.

While it supports innovative artists integrating modern techniques, CNACA is looking for quality Cree products that are handmade with traditional skills, which carry authenticity tags. It sometimes accepts “semi-authentic” goods, such as mittens made from cowhide rather than moose-hide.

A growing array of online marketplaces focus on authentic Indigenous goods, including Indigene Arts and Shawish. One of the newest “digital ecosystems” that’s gaining attention is Biskane, named for the Anishinaabe word meaning “to light the fire.”

“Travelling coast to coast as an author and puppeteer, I realized there’s a large disconnect from our community artisans to the retail space,” said founder Chad Solomon, from Henvey Inlet First Nation near Sudbury. “Our purpose is to support the artisans in the sales and marketing component and also in the supply chain.”

While marketplaces like From the People require vendors to prove tribal affiliation, Solomon’s platform includes non-Indigenous allies who provide services that Indigenous businesses need to grow. He gave the examples of furs and boxes, for which he said there are currently no Indigenous options. 

A badge icon system identifies whether vendors are Indigenous or allies and whether products are handmade or “culturally designed”, such as “Every Child Matters” shirts that are manufactured in China. Unlike many e-commerce sites, Biskane doesn’t require vendors to have inventory on hand.

“Artisans can make it to order, just posting a picture similar to what they can make,” Solomon explained. “Most people are willing to wait for a handmade item because they know it takes time and effort. We designed the technology to support our community artists so that it’s 100% free.”

Young artists like Whapmagoostui’s Saige “Nalakwsis” Mukash leverage the internet to sell their creations and inspire others through their “Bead This In Your Style” social-media challenge. Cree artisan Paula Menarick combines online sales with events like Chisasibi’s Arts and Crafts Exposition. 

Managing the gift shop at the Chisasibi Heritage and Cultural Centre for the past 10 years, Kristin Sam is regularly asked by artisans how much to charge for their products. She responded by organizing a craft pricing workshop November 22, which was so popular she held another that evening, drawing nearly 50 participants.

“You look at your material, your time at an hourly rate and the years of experience,” Sam told the Nation. “Elders should jack up their prices from years of experience. The more detailed the beadwork or embroidery, that’s when you raise your prices. There’s a lot of tricks to it.”

Sam advises participants to treat themselves like an employee, raising their hourly rate each year, and labelling their products in the stitching to establish their reputation. She recognizes fair pricing as both an artist and buyer and has been asked if she can share this knowledge with other communities.

“The Cree-made crafts are very recognizable now with people from down south,” explained Sam. “They’re starting to see our culture as very rich with very good quality. Six years ago, the young generation wasn’t interested in making crafts but now we have a lot of young girls participating in our craft workshops.”

While many were drawn to the therapeutic appeal of craft making during the pandemic, when Sam would teach sewing online, she said it also raised the costs of materials. For the moose-hide and seal-skin Sam uses for her moccasins, she looks for good finds at the local Ouwah Store.

Sam started making moccasins, which she calls “Gookum mocs”, because they remind her of her late grandmother. Working evenings and weekends, she can make a pair in a week if her hands aren’t too sore from the tough moose-hide. 

“What I love about our crafts, it brings back memories about our grandparents,” said Sam. “I cherish that because they make it with love. Whatever we make, the person who will buy them will know it was made with love.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.