Recently, while searching for something else, Mary Annette Pember stumbled upon her mother’s beadwork.
Holding the intricate designs in her hands, she was flooded with memories.
In her blog Daily Yonder, Pember reflects on an incident when she was nearly five years old and she similarly discovered yards of her mother’s loom work in a drawer, “hidden and tightly coiled like beautiful snakes,” she writes in her post The Woman with the Beadwork Tattoo.
Admiring the detailed creations at such a young age, she immediately felt the urge to create her own, and “…incredibly, she let me cut apart her loom work,” Pember writes.
In retrospect, Pember finds her mother’s acquiescence surprising. Her mother, Bernice, who passed at age 86 on September 19, 2011, intended to make the beadwork into belts for all the men in her family. “I imagine her pride as an Ojibwe woman, a ‘shinnobiwke,’ as she spent those many hours over the loom creating something her men could wear with pride.”
Pember now links her mother’s consent to let her tear apart her beadwork, her pride, to the Catholic boarding schools. At age 5, Bernice was removed from her parents’ home on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin to attend Sister School, an Indian boarding school in Wisconsin. “For my mother, like so many other Indian people, the Sister School experience ensured that her pride as a shinnobikwe would forever be tainted by shame. In the end, the shame of being Indian overshadowed her pride in her beadwork, and she allowed a selfish little girl to destroy it,” Pember writes.
A few months ago, laying the beadwork over her wrists, Pember longed to honor her mother and her work in some way. As a tribute, she tattooed her mother’s design on her wrists, covering an old tattoo that spelled out “Squaw’ in ragged letters, a youth-driven emblem of ethnic pride, she explains.
“Her design is, indeed, an allegory of my mother’s life and I wear it proudly,” Pember writes.