Sitting in her home studio, Melanie Gamache carefully gathers up beads with her needle — each tiny individual bead touched by her hands as she creates her unique handcrafted designs.
As she works, the Manitoba-based beadwork artisan is not only channeling her own creativity — she is building on the rich beading tradition created by generations of Métis women before her.
“Beadwork tells the story of the Métis people,” Melanie says. “How they lived, what they were doing at certain times. The beadwork was made based on their surroundings.”
Melanie began to learn the art of beading in 2015 as a way of reconnecting with her Métis heritage.
“It’s really been something that I’ve enjoyed learning about my family, about my culture."
The more Melanie got into beading, the more she wanted to know about the stories and history behind the various patterns and techniques she was using.
The Métis combined traditional First Nations beading with embroidery techniques taught by French-Canadian nuns into a unique artwork that became so vibrant and intricate, that it came to identify the Métis to other Indigenous nations, earning them the name “the Flower Beadwork People.”
“You can learn about their patterns and how patterns were passed down from family member to family member,” she says.
The stories lead Melanie to a journey of discovery and now she wants to share that knowledge and skill with others.
“My goal, my mission, my vision is that I share Métis culture and heritage through beading.”
Melanie has been sharing her knowledge in a variety of ways: with beading demonstrations, cultural presentations and workshops through her business Borealis Beading. During the pandemic, Melanie pivoted her business online and started to offer popular virtual workshops.
Now she is offering something infinitely more immersive. Her newest venture is called Perlage: A Métis voyage into the world of the Flower Beadwork People.
Lead from her home in eastern Manitoba, the new experiences are rich with storytelling, hands-on activities, and the sharing of food — all key elements in creating an immersive experience that doesn’t just show beading but allows guests to share in the Métis experience and take valuable cultural lessons home with them. It is the type of workshop that stays with you long after it is finished.
Melanie welcomes guests to her home in the outdoor welcome tent with water and tea. She sits with her visitors around a fire and tells her story and the story of her people. The group then takes a scouting walk around Melanie’s property where she has many native Manitoba plants growing. She tells the story of each plant and how it was used traditionally by the Métis. There is a big connection between beadwork and nature and Melanie wants guests to see the patterns in the plants and flowers.
The next part of the experience takes place in Melanie’s sunny studio, where guests create one of two activities (depending on which experience they have chosen): in one guests learn to create patterns and in the other, they try their hand at beading.
It all ends, as most good things do, with everyone sitting around a table together and sharing food. Melanie treats her guests to Métis charcuterie.
For Melanie, beading is a way of celebrating her culture and keeping an important aspect of the Métis traditions alive. While she honours the techniques and traditions of Métis bead working, Melanie likes to put her own contemporary spin on it because it feels right to her. The Métis women of generations past were creating art that was contemporary to them and Melanie believes it is important to create art that is contemporary to her — showing that the culture is not stagnant, but moving, thriving, and alive.
“I challenge myself to do different things,” she says. “I am not a traditional beadwork artist. There are many beautiful beadwork artists out there, friends of mine, that do beautiful work and they’re very much on the traditional side. I do traditional knowledge sharing and techniques but bring it into the contemporary. I really found out who I am and what I can give back. I want to share the knowledge that I have with people so it doesn’t get lost.