Indigenous symbolism at convocation

Posted on Friday, June 21, 2019

Symbols beaded on a wool scarf.

When Kelly Duquette crossed the stage to receive her law degree in June, her academic robes were complemented by a quartet of symbols she wore close to her heart. On the right was the flag of Louis Riel’s provisional government, a vine of Métis flowers and an iris in purples and blues. On the left was a polar bear in mid-stride. 

These symbols were hand-beaded onto a wool stole. Each one represents an element of Kelly’s story. The flag is a nod to her ancestor, Toussaint Lussier, who served the provisional government at Red River. The colours chosen for the flowers honour several generations of women who have supported Kelly throughout her life.

On graduation day, Kelly joined six other Indigenous graduates and four Indigenous faculty members who wore stoles beaded for them by members of the law school community. Dean Adam Dodek also donned a custom-beaded stole – a physical reminder of his responsibilities as a leader pursuing reconciliation within the Faculty of Law and the legal profession. So, too, did the Faculty’s vice-deans. Each stole featured the polar bear design and symbols unique to the person wearing it. 

Students dressed in gowns at graduation.

“When our Indigenous learners receive their degrees, they will be wrapped in the love of their community,” says Danielle Lussier, the law school’s Indigenous Learner Advocate, who spearheaded the beadwork project. “Each stole represents many, many hours of painstaking work. The ‘slow art’ of beadwork requires that we reflect on the journeys of each learner. In this way, we honour them and the paths they have walked to reach Convocation.”

There was even a plan to equip any graduate who had not previously self-identified as Indigenous. Stoles featuring symbols common to the law school and the Indigenous community – the polar bear, the medicine wheel, and Métis infinity flags – were available on graduation day for those who had previously felt unable to self-identify within the law school.

As a citizen of the Métis Nation and member of the Manitoba Métis Federation, Lussier introduced the beadwork project to the law school earlier this year. She began hosting drop-in sessions, where anyone could come learn beadwork techniques developed by the Métis, who are known for beading garments with intricate designs that represent berries, flowers, and vines. The project quickly gained momentum. Since January, over 60 people have participated in weekly beading circles.

 Le doyen de la Section de common law à la Faculté de droit, M. Adam Dodek, en compagnie de Kelly Duquette, Maria Lucas, Ryan Stiles, Sasha Bronicheski et Danielle Lussier.

From left : The Dean of the Common law Section at the Faculty of Law, Mr. Adam Dodek, with Kelly Duquette, Maria Lucas, Ryan Stiles, Sasha Bronicheski and Danielle Lussier.

Much learning happens around the table during beading circles. This activity allows participants to develop cross-cultural competencies, in addition to building reciprocal, trust-based relationships between members of the law school community.

“I love how [the beadwork circle] brings faculty members and students together and promotes visibility of Indigenous students and practices,” said one learner.

The beadwork is also a feminist project – a way of honouring “women’s work” within an institution and profession that historically has not embraced the contributions of women or Indigenous peoples.

Indeed, beads have played a significant role in many Indigenous communities and nations. For instance, the wampum belts of the Haudenosaunee were composed of strings of purple and white beads made from quahog shells. This heritage was incorporated into the polar bear design featured on the graduation stoles. The bear – given the name Abimi, an Anishinaabe word meaning “to defend” – has stripes of white and purple passing through her eyes and heart. The stripes evoke the two-row wampum belt known as Guswenta, a record of the treaty concluded between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch in the early 1600s.

Étudiante vêtue d'une toge de graduation reçoit un diplôme à la collation des grades.

This living history hangs in the air on Thursday mornings at the law school, when beading circle takes place. Wander up to the third floor and you are likely to find a classroom full of people beading, eating, and visiting in community. Professors and staff, Common Law and Civil Law, JD students and graduate students, alumni, friends, and family members – all are welcome. Métis fiddle music plays in the background.

“[Beading circle] brings people together in a completely different context,” says Professor Heather McLeod-Kilmurray. “[It] makes me feel connected to others literally by a thread of community, shared mission, inspiration, and creativity… It then makes me so much more positive, inspired, and productive for the rest of the day in all my other work.”

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