April 12, 2024

Building Advanced Horizons

Navigating the World of Business Trading

Beading businesses bridge communities and create paths to entrepreneurship

5 min read
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Jessica McKenzie is the owner of Future Kokum, a beading business that she started after she learned that her craft was a way for her to connect with her culture and build community. She teaches beadwork workshops and sells kits on her website. ‘That’s the hope of this business, to pass on traditional teachings to the future generations,’ she says.Duane Cole

When Jessica McKenzie first started her beading business, she found herself wondering, “Do I even know enough about my culture to be selling my beadwork?”

McKenzie is Indonesian and a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Manitoba. She grew up in Toronto, and often felt disconnected from her Indigenous roots.

“In my household we really didn’t speak about Indigenous culture, community, or where my reserve was,” she says.

Four years ago, an Elder in her community introduced McKenzie to her first beading kit. “[Beading] opened up the doors to talk about my culture and that actually moved me closer to my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and even my dad,” McKenzie says.

Beadwork has been an enduring art form among Indigenous communities for thousands of years. Whether utilizing traditional materials like quill, bones and shells or incorporating modern ceramic and glass beads, the craft takes many forms, adorning jewelry, accessories, clothing and more.

For countless bead artists, the act of beading carries profound spiritual significance, as they channel prayers into each meticulously placed bead. “I want to make sure that every single stroke of beadwork, or every single time I pick up a bead, it’s with good thoughts, good intentions and a clear mind,” McKenzie says.

McKenzie has been using beadwork as a means of reconnecting to her Indigenous roots, starting conversations about traditional teachings and creating a sense of community. It also allowed her to unpack and discuss her own family history, in ways she never had before.

“It really opened up the door to talk about my grandparents, my dad, and these memories that truly connected him with his Indigenous culture,” she says.

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McKenzie works on a new pair of earrings. All her work carries spiritual significance. ‘I want to make sure that every single stroke of beadwork, or every single time I pick up a bead, it’s with good thoughts, good intentions and a clear mind,’ she says.Duane Cole

In this way, beading is more than a craft – it’s a practice of spirituality and storytelling for Indigenous communities. And, it’s a business: McKenzie’s jewelry brand, Future Kokum, has amassed more than 8,000 followers on Instagram. Her pieces have been sold at local Indigenous-owned storefronts and pop-ups, including Aanin, an online Indigenous department store, and Mino Bimaadziwin, an art market in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood.

For the most part, McKenzie sells her designs at pow-wows and through her Shopify storefront. Aiming to make her beadwork accessible while considering the cost of materials and time, most of her pieces on her website are priced under $100.

McKenzie also receives requests for commissioned pieces. It once took her 60 hours to make a custom beaded jacket for a customer from Australia.

“The jacket that I created was called the milk snake because of the colours that wrapped around the hood. When you put the hood on, it actually looked like a snake head,” she recalls.

Marissa Barker, a bead artist from Treaty 4 territory and a member of the Red River Métis, has also experienced how beading can connect both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences around the world, often through social media.

“Beading is medicine, and it is very healing,” Barker says. Inspired by her grandmother, an avid beader who also sat on the Manitoba Métis Foundation board, she started her own business, Rissa Bead, on Instagram in 2022.

Barker mainly sells her work through Instagram or the platform Ko-Fi, where sellers can create membership tiers with rewards for their customers, set up stream alerts, sell physical or digital or offer commissions and other custom services. Half of her sales come from the U.S., but she also gets traffic from the United Kingdom, Singapore and Australia.

Barker seamlessly integrates traditional Indigenous design with modern pop culture, infusing her beadwork with elements from retro video games and art, sometimes featuring iconic characters like Kirby and Yoshi. Her store has over 15,000 followers on Instagram.

“I would describe my art style as dreamy with a nostalgic feel. I’ve learned that even if my beadwork has non-traditional themes, I am still practicing a traditional art form of my ancestors,” she says. “I think that it just shows Indigenous resilience to bring traditional practices to the modern era with pop culture elements.”

For both McKenzie and Barker, community is an integral part of their practice and how they scale their businesses.

Barker emphasizes the importance of connecting with fellow beadwork artists and fostering authentic relationships. She finds that connecting with other beading artists makes it possible for new potential customers to discover her beadwork, and that the community that arises offers valuable guidance for beginners, teaching each other about new techniques or material selection.

With data and resources specific to Indigenous entrepreneurship still often limited, collective care and establishing a strong network is key to getting started for many Indigenous entrepreneurs.

That also means creating new avenues for the next generation to start their own businesses. McKenzie sells beading kits on her site, and hosts workshops for anyone interested in learning the craft. A portion of her sales are also redirected back into the community through Indigenous charities across Turtle Island.

McKenzie says that some of her students have started selling their own beadwork. “And they’re selling out,” she says. “That’s exactly what I wanted them to do was to find a hobby that they love, and to connect to who they are.”

“Future Kokum means future grandmother in Cree. And that’s the hope of this business, to pass on traditional teachings to the future generations.”


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