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From the most bird’s-eye of views, indigenous beading of North America has had three broad epochs. The first epoch started at least 15,000 years ago. During this era, beads were rarely colored or of a uniform size. Still, the techniques advanced so much that in lieu of writing, many of North America’s first peoples used beads to document marriages, canonical stories—even intertribal treaties.
The second epoch began between 200 and 500 years ago, depending on the region, when North America’s white newcomers introduced the natives to tiny glass beads of every color. In a precious example of what might have been between North America’s first and second peoples, 15,000 years of practice met the present moment in an explosion of unprecedented innovation and creativity.
The third epoch began with the decline of all things native. By 1900, many practitioners had been lost along with their knowledge of the craft. From the Iroquois in New England to the Cree of the Great Plains to the Okanagan peoples of British Columbia, practically just a moment after its Renaissance began, indigenous beadwork effectively went underground.
Robyn Shlachetka, a mother of three and medivac pilot in the Arctic, is half Cree and half Sioux. She remembers learning beadcraft as an early teenager from her aunt. She showed talent even then, but she had to move away after high school and lost touch with it.
The tradition came back into her life after her second child was born. Robyn realized that the baby definitely needed an authentic pair of baby mukluks with her name beaded into them. Robyn could afford the gift but, to her disappointment, couldn’t find anyone to buy it from. So she resolved to make it herself. “I had a pair that my great grandmother had given me so I used that as the pattern for my daughter’s.”
Robyn finished her project, posted victory pics, and was hit with a tidal wave of compliments—and requests. Suddenly, Robyn’s friends and even friends-of-friends had to have their own. In that moment, Robyn Shlachteka became a professional indigenous beader.
Today, she sells about one item a day—from mukluks and moccasins to gauntlets to jewelry. She’s also started teaching others how to carry on the craft of her ancestors. She hopes that her work contributes to a fourth epoch of indigenous beadwork—one of rediscovery.