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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Rekindling Traditions: Two Cree artists who love to share their work with others 

BY Joshua Janke Feb 26, 2024

Art is thriving in Eeyou Istchee thanks to talented individuals like Paula Menarick (Fast Cloud Inspirations) and Deborah Ratt (Cree-Ations Jewels), both of whom participated in the CNACA event in Montreal.

Paula Menarick

Paula Menarick’s affinity for traditional Cree and Inuit art and crafting traces back to her earliest memories, where she watched with fascination as her mother, aunts and grandmother engaged in the meticulous work of bead and embroidery. 

Menarick fondly recalls her elementary and high school years, stating, “I remember we had Cree culture classes. They would teach us to make bags, mittens, all sorts of crafts – but I found it very hard. I had such an admiration for it, but it took me a while to perfect my own skills and style. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I developed a love for making art.”

After graduating from college in 2006, Menarick embraced her artistic journey, drawing inspiration from the very places where her passion first ignited. She reflects, “I haven’t stopped since, I sew and bead every day now.” 

Menarick’s dedication to her craft has garnered her a substantial following, both on social media and within Eeyou Istchee, as well as internationally. In 2021, she received government grants and funding from Canada Council for the Arts to embark on a three-year moose mitten making mission. 

“I began the moosehide mitten project during the Covid pandemic. Using four full moosehides from Eeyou Istchee, I proposed my project and was accepted. Basically, my plan is to make as many mittens as possible over a three-year period. This is all done with an emphasis on teaching others the skill.” 

Menarick says that the project has not only increased her own art and teaching skills, but it has ensured that the traditional techniques she learned from her Elders are recorded and passed down to the next generations. 

“Throughout the project, I am teaching on my Facebook page as I create so people can learn to make them as well. I want to keep this tradition alive. I’ve been posting instructional videos and sources so people can learn from me or from other artists.”

It’s been quite a success, Menarick adds. “I’ve had a person share a pair of mittens that she made, just from following my creation process over the years. It’s truly so beautiful to see.

“This is why I show every step in my lessons, from A to Z. I teach them the beadwork, the stringing, the cutting the moosehide, how to draw flowers and embroider a design.” 

So far, Menarick has completed 14 pairs of moosehide mittens, with every step of their construction carefully documented through videos, pictures and her instruction. Additionally, Menarick does a mitten pattern giveaway on her website every month. 

With the launch of her website in October 2023, Menarick notes a higher diversification in her clientele. “Even before the website, I was selling across Canada, with clients from Eeyou Istchee, Nunavik and Nunavut. Now when I share this art with the world, it’s not just about me, it’s about the traditions I am continuing.” 

For Menarick, her creations are rooted in the Cree and Inuit traditions she learned growing up in Chisasibi. “Being Cree and Inuk, I have always had a respect for both cultures. I tell myself that I must learn before I can create, so I can create out of respect. Art creation is about being inspired, respectful learning and expressing yourself to the world.” 

She explains how tradition holds a pivotal role in her work. She consistently favours traditional methods and strives to use only materials from Eeyou Istchee, allowing her to reconnect with her first teachers, and make creations in their memory. 

“Authentic material means so much to me. Lately, I have been going through boxes of beads my grandmother has saved and started using them in new projects. There is something special about continuing my grandmother’s traditions with the same beads that she first taught me with.”

Deborah Ratt

It’s been over five months since Deborah Ratt and I last spoke at the 33rd First People’s Festival in Montreal. Now, like old friends, we continued our conversation, delving into her commitment to community and the impact of traditional art she sees happening around her. 

Reflecting on her role in the Vaudreuil-Dorion region and within Cree culture, Ratt says that for her “being a part of the Indigenous world is about helping other people.” She sees herself as a facilitator for others, underlining the importance of self-care and nurturing connections within the community.

“I am very open to finding ways that I can use my art to help others, whether it be giving out beading kits, or providing lessons. I feel strongly that sharing traditional culture goes beyond artistic expression, it has social-political implications as well.” 

Ratt actively engages with the community, collaborating with associations like Cree Outfitting and Tourism, and the Waswanipi Women’s Association. As the founder of Cree-Ations Jewels, she expresses gratitude for being able to run a business while maintaining community involvement. 

“I am so blessed to be a part of these organizations,” Ratt says. “It’s important to extend yourself as an artist into the community beyond the artistic realm, past your comfort zone.” 

Ratt’s current focus involves finding ways to contribute to Indigenous women’s shelters, using her communication and teaching skills to present art as a catalyst for change within oneself.

Furthermore, Ratt says that “everyone is an artist” because we are all unique and essential to the community. “We each have our own way of doing things, just being alive and living life is a work of art. We should try to share our talents with each other, as well as our shortcomings – we can’t do anything in this world alone. People need connections, and it’s wonderful what we can accomplish when we all get together as one,” she says. 

“I see so many connections being developed through art in Eeyou Istchee, so what is stopping us from furthering these Indigenous connections and spreading them throughout the world? 

“Sharing art internationally is so important,” says Ratt. “I want to engage with traditional African art, art from Arizona, and from around the world. There are so many books, artistic creations, and stories of hope to be shared amongst us.” 

One of her artistic loves is traditional bead weaving, a skill that she now teaches. “Beading people are hard to find sometimes, but they are also easy to find because everyone can become a beader,” Ratt says with a laugh. 

“Oh, I have a good story, it’s from a beading course I organized in 2018. I showed up and 80% of the participants were men – not exactly what you would expect. But you should have seen the beautiful designs and delicate bead patterns that they made. It didn’t matter that they had big hands or had never beaded before. I was so proud of them. It just goes to show how open we need to remain when working with others in the art community.”

“Anyone can do it – men, women, children, people with arthritis. I know people who have learned to bead with their feet,” Ratt adds. “Seriously, the more you look around, the more you see people who have found peace and positivity within art, and no one has a perfect path to finding that place.” 

As the interview concludes, Ratt points out, just like in her work, our conversation is not ending. “I’ll see you soon, that’s what I always say. I don’t say goodbye because it’s not really goodbye, right? I say, see you soon because that’s what I mean.”

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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.