By Sue Tiffin
After becoming introduced to Indigenous beadwork, the first piece that Larry O’Connor beaded himself was a poppy, which he gave to his next door neighbour, a Legion member.
“They say you should always give away your first piece,” said O’Connor. “[Since then] I’ve made one for everybody in my family.”
And so began a deep interest in creating art and regalia through beading that has led to O’Connor being part of several beading groups on Facebook, learning more about his own culture and history and being able to share with others through social media and even in classes on stitching and technique he has taught.
“I haven’t been beading for that long,” said O’Connor, who started in October 2019. “But with COVID, it filled a niche. The downside is we don’t get to go see people in person but it gave me time to focus on a craft that is part of my culture that I probably wouldn’t have had spent the time with otherwise.”
O’Connor, whose mom was Métis and whose dad is Métis-Odawa, first went to a class about beadwork that the Toronto Métis Council had put together. Some of the beadwork itself, he said, goes back a thousand years, and was originally created with shells which connected the work to shared DNA between humans and Mother Earth.
“I did the one class, and then I was at another Métis gathering, and did another flower, and I thought, well, I can do this,” he said. “The next thing I did was my vest. Once you’ve learned to stitch, it’s just a matter of finding a pattern or coming up with an idea. It’s been rewarding.”
For O’Connor, he said the interest for him was in the culture.
“Within our culture, there’s a language, there’s the connection to the land, but a very tactile way of being involved with our culture is actually doing the beadwork and the crafting that our relations did one hundred, two hundred years ago,” he said. “I think, something drew me to the element of creating something with my hands that I could share in different ways. It gives me something that I can show and talk about as well.”
While O’Connor was growing up in Oshawa, his family did not talk about being Indigenous. His great-grandmother went to residential school – a problematic school system funded by the Canadian government and run by churches that removed Indigenous children from their families with the purpose of assimilating them into settler culture that resulted in abuse and death of many children as well as trauma for survivors. She subsequently raised her family as French-Canadians.
“My dad had no exposure to his grandmother and his mother died when he was 12, so there was no way for him to really know that he was Indigenous,” said O’Connor. “It wasn’t until the early 90s, around 2000, probably when he retired, that he started to investigate his culture. He found that his grandfather was Métis. It wasn’t until we looked even further and he found that his grandmother was born on Sheshegwaning First Nation on Manitoulin Island.”
O’Connor’s mom’s side also denied their Indigenuity [a concept combining Indigenous and ingenuity].
“In my retirement, I really embraced my Indigenous heritage and tried to reclaim who I am and who my family is, my family, they’re getting educated just as I am, we share that as we grow,” said O’Connor. “In many ways, it’s our little piece of being on the receiving end of Truth and Reconciliation. If it wasn’t the fact that our great-grandmother went through the residential school system, and the colonial system that we grew up in, we probably would have known more about our past. Because they grew up in Northern Ontario, the shame of being Indigenous it was like a heavy wet Hudson Bay blanket covering them, that, don’t talk about being Indigenous, don’t tell anyone, because the Indian agents will find you and you’ll be off to residential schools, too.”
For O’Connor it has been important to speak out against falsehoods and myths that get perpetuated through racism, which he can do through education on his radio show and now in sharing history and meaning through beadwork.
“For me to have a chance to go out and share my culture and dispel myths, I think that’s really important,” he said. “I think the history I learned in school and even the, when you’re traveling across the country and you look at some of these historic plaques, a lot of them are full of myths and errors. I mean, the settlers, the colonialists, they came over here and said there were savages here. We had people, culture, and we were here for ten thousand years before they arrived. We were here. We weren’t discovered. They just happened to run into us when they came to our homelands.”
To this end, some of O’Connor’s work has honoured missing and murdered Indigenous women, and, since this interview, the 215 children found buried in a mass grave at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops.
His favourite work so far has been a beaded octopus, or “devil fish” bag, which he said is named for its eight “dangling tabs.”
“This style of bag has been found among the Métis, Cree and Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island,” he wrote on social media. “The Tlingit people have artfully been making these bags since the mid-1800s. Traditionally, these were made by wives for their husbands and used to carry flint, tobacco, smoking pipes, tinder, medicines and other small items. More contemporarily, these bags are used by men and women in dances as regalia.”
“It was a project I felt I needed to do, it’s part of Indigenous culture that is shared with First Nation and Métis,” O’Connor told the Times. “It’s got elements of both sides of that piece of my heritage. I haven’t put the medicines in the legs yet but I am going to have to do that. Before I take it out I will. Creating the octopus bag is one thing but it now becomes a talking piece as well, where I can talk about the culture, the history behind things, and introduce them to the medicines, that normally you don’t have that opportunity to do.”
While semi-retired, O’Connor puts much care into his work on Canoe FM as an Indigenous radio host, and helped to organize COVID-19 vaccination clinics for Indigenous people in Haliburton. Now his downtime, when he has it, is spent at the table at his Hunter Creek home working on projects.
“It’s a great way to sit down and have conversation,” he said. “People do that with quilting, and playing cards. Sometimes it involves crafts, sometimes it’s just a social activity. When you do it virtually with other people, you have that opportunity to learn about other cultures right across Turtle Island.”
Additionally, he can share his work – on vests, on drums – with friends and family – from his mom and dad down, he said there are 74 relatives.
“If I bead for the rest of my life, I should be able to get something to everyone,” he said, laughing. “There’s a lot of beading to be done.”
O’Connor is making time for it.
“We never were exposed to any cultural activities being Indigenous here in Canada – I think, now, we’re … Canada’s changing,” he said. “Louis Riel was a cousin of mine. He said, in 100 years, the Indigenous will rise up, and it will be the artists that will lead the way. Well, I don’t know that I’m leading the way, but I’m certainly sharing what I’m learning … I think it’s important that we share the stories.”
“My story could very well have ended with the genocide of my culture if somebody didn’t speak up and start talking about it,” he said. “This is my way to say that this is who I am, this is part of my Indigenous culture, and I’m proud of it.”