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From beadwork to bannock

Dianne Smith fed her children on beadwork.In Whitehorse, that’s not easy.“There’s no place to sell stuff,” said the…

Dianne Smith fed her children on beadwork.

In Whitehorse, that’s not easy.

“There’s no place to sell stuff,” said the Kwanlin Dun artist.

One business offered to sell Smith’s products, but only offered her 50 per cent of the profit.

“I buy the materials and do the design, then people buy it cheap and mark it up 200 to 300 per cent,” she said.

Smith’s mom had the same problem.

That’s why RVs ended up driving around the Kwanlin Dun village, said Smith.

Beadwork runs in the family, and Smith’s mother was famous in Europe.

“We’d have these big motor homes driving through the village with people from France and Germany asking where Annie Smith lives,” she said.

It was the best way to sell her art.

While she worked on a black felt vest at the Old Fire Hall during a media conference, Smith’s colourful flowers grew from her imagination.

“I don’t use a pattern,” she said, pulling a pink bead tight against the fabric.

“I just count the beads, and every flower comes as I go. By the time I finish one, I know what colour the next one is going to be.”

Smith started beading when she was a little girl, out on her family’s Wheaton River trapline.

“My grandmothers started me on a small change purse,” she said.

Every time Smith made a mistake, she’d have to undo it and start again.

“There was lots of times I wanted to give up,” she said.

“But when I’d get upset, my grandfathers took me for a walk.

“It taught me patience.”

Eventually, Smith sold the little purse at the Indian craft store for $8.

“I gave the money to my mom and dad for food,” said Smith.

Now her work is being featured in a Paris design magazine and is on display at the National Museum in Ottawa.

Smith is always willing to share her craft.

“I’ve taught women in BC and the Yukon,” she said.

“And now these women are feeding their children by the teachings.

“When I show and teach people, I know they’ll never go hungry. It’s like money in the bank.”

Next to the packets of beads, Smith had small bags of plant cuttings: spruce tips, alder leaves, Labrador tea, stone berry leaves and balsam bark.

When she’s not beading, Smith holds workshops to teach others about traditional medicines.

The balsam bark is good for cancer, TB and cleansing the blood, she said holding up the bag.

While, the Labrador tea is good for people who have a hard time sleeping.

Beside Smith, Fred Johnstone sat working on a porcupine-quill flower.

“Can I borrow a needle from you,” he said, leaning over to look at Smith’s handiwork.

Johnstone specializes in what he calls “female crafts,” including bead and quillwork.

“I have twin daughters; their mom is Irish and we separated early, so I realized if they were going to learn anything (about traditional First Nations art) they’d have to learn it from me.”

So he studied women’s crafts.

Beside him at the table, Smith pulled out a quill piece she was working on.

“I’ll have to show her a trick to work with that,” said Johnstone.

And beginning this weekend, he’ll have his chance.

The inaugural First Nations Arts Festival, called Sharing Our Spirit, will run June 21 through 27 in Whitehorse.

Smith will be there with her beads and medicines and Johnstone will be working with his quills.

“Most artists work in a vacuum, so sharing ideas and seeing what other artists do is inspiring,” said Johnstone.

The show will feature 35 visual artists and craftspeople from all corners of the Yukon, said festival co-ordinator Charlene Alexander during the media conference.

The main-stage events will take place behind the Visitor Information Centre in a big tent, and include performances by the local Dahk Ka Kwaan dancers, storytellers, First Nations performers and Canadian blues singer George Leech.

There will also be a tent on Main Street for workshops on moose-hair tufting, raven-tail weaving, moose-antler carving, cedar-bark weaving, drum making and sewing and beading.

“The focus is to bring the artists, performers, elders and the community together to showcase their work and gain inspiration,” said Alexander, who earned the Order of Canada for her work as an exceptional administrator.

A co-founder of the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik, Alexander is hoping to effect some changes in the territory.

Living in Inuvik, she saw people drawn north by oil money. The arts were abandoned, she said.

So Alexander started the hugely successful Great Northern Arts Festival to rejuvenate arts and culture.

“And I hope this festival (in Whitehorse) will do the same,” she said.

The Yukon First Nations Arts Festival begins Saturday, National Aboriginal Day, with an annual bannock bakeoff at 11 a.m. Leech will be performing at 3 p.m. on the main stage at Jubilee Park.

For a full festival schedule go to