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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Sewing program teaches women traditional skills, while making friends

BY Ben Powless Nov 24, 2021

For the past five years, women – and a few men – have been joining Louise Coonishish’s Sewing Project to help deal with their problems, and to find a sense of community.

“We knew there were people out there who need support in their grieving, their depression, so we asked those people if they wanted to join. I invite women to come in, people who need some therapy, just to be out of their homes and to do something else instead of being cooped up at home, being depressed,” Coonishish told the Nation

“I try to bring in single parents. I also have clients who need to do community hours or are referred to justice committee for help and guidance.” 

The program is so successful that some people keep asking to return. Unfortunately, there’s not always room. “I usually take new ones, and if I have space, I’ll call someone who wants to come in and see if they’re still interested.”

Coonishish runs the program from Mistissini, where she serves as a Community Justice Officer Coordinator. Each sewing project takes up 10 sessions of two-to-three hours. The program is part of the Eenou Nadamaadun, the justice committee, which translates as “helping each other.” about 75 people come out every year.

“At the beginning when we did moccasins, there were a few men who wanted to learn. I agreed for them to come and join us. We have other activities for men, like carving,” Coonishish noted. “Usually we make moccasins, or mittens with moose-hide embroidery and beads. We also make gun cases, shell cases, those kinds of things. Right now, we’re making parkas – it’s my first time.” 

Coonishish hires experienced instructors locally, and Elders are brought in as counsellors to help with the teaching and the language, particularly to help teach new words. “Today the younger generation hardly speaks Cree, and we want to keep our culture, and learn our culture.”

Currently, 17 people are making parkas for themselves or loved ones. The challenge with parkas is getting a lot of good quality material, which can be expensive. These parkas are lined with wool. Feathers take two years of planning to acquire and use, since they can only be harvested once a year when the geese visit. 

Six women showed up for the first project, Coonishish remembers. “More people came after because those in there told their friends and families, their daughters, so it grew. I have a ‘limit” of 10, but now we’re 17 because I can’t say no when someone wants to do some sewing with us.”

Coonishish puts up flyers and posts information on her Facebook page when there are openings, after she’s contacted previous clientele. The program is open to those 18 and up, though occasionally some of the women bring their daughters who are 16 and up. 

Coonishish’s office also runs canoe excursions in July after school is out. They take young paddlers up the lake for 10 days near the traditional gathering to learn how to catch, clean and smoke fish. In the fall, there’s a 10-day moose program which takes young people and young families out of the community to “refresh their mind.”

During goose break, Coonishish takes families or individuals with community hours to spend time in the bush, helping Elders, helping around the camp, while they have the chance to hunt and harvest geese. Plus, there’s a bush program which involves spending 10 days with experienced trappers where individuals can go partridge hunting, rabbit snaring and learn how to clean their game. 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.