The Woman with the Beadwork Tattoo
Mary Annette Pember
A few months ago, while looking for something else, I found my mother’s beadwork. They are just bits, really, of much longer strips of loom work that is typically made into belts or regalia.
They carry her signature design and like all good loom work they lie flat and strong when placed on a table. I’ve tried to do loom work myself but found it too slow and exacting. The warp (longitudinal part) is comprised of long pieces of thread kept in place on a loom. The weft is used to place beads into each tiny space between the treads on the warp.
I first saw Mom’s work by accident when I was less than five years old, stumbling over it as I rummaged through her dresser drawers. Oh, what mysteries those draws held for a little girl! The smell of French perfume in its tiny bottle and the slightly acrid smell that was her spoke of secrets yet to be revealed.
Her loom work, yards of it, lay in the bottom-most drawer, hidden and tightly coiled like beautiful, snakes: I felt as though I’d discovered a treasure. Intricate yet strong, the lengths were a tactile joy.
I marveled at how the individual beads could come together to create such beauty, and, selfish child that I was, wanted to make my own creations right away. There were only a few remaining loose beads so, incredibly, she let me cut apart her loom work. It was slow going using my little scissors but I managed to extract most of the beads, enough to fill a half-gallon-size Tupperware container.
Typically, my ambitions overshot the reality of hard work. The holes in the tiny beads required using wire-thin needles, and I soon tired of the tedious work.
Mary Annette Pember Finding the bits of remaining loom work caused me to wonder again why she had let me cut it all up. I asked her before she passed last year, and she just smiled her far away smile and answered with a question: “Oh why do we do things?”
I recall that she had intended to make the beadwork into belts for all the men in our 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.
She learned her beading skills at the Sister School, an Indian boarding school in Wisconsin where she was placed at age five. White people who “knew better” about how children should be raised took her and her siblings from their family. Under the strict direction of the nuns, the children were required to make beadwork to be sold to wealthy patrons of the religious order who paid for the civilization and education of the “poor, dirty Indians.” 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.
I thought of these things as I laid the beadwork over my wrist and admired, once again, its strength and intricate design, a bit frayed on the ends but still durable after all these years. An allegory for her life, the beadwork begged to be honored in some way. I noted that I had inadvertently placed the beads over an old jailhouse tattoo made years ago during my month-long stint in reform school. Put on with thread covered sewing needles dipped in the ink from a broken Bic pen, the tattoo spelled out “Squaw’ in ragged letters. Fueled by youthful bluster, it was my defiant declaration of ethnic pride in the face of a racist world. My swagger wasn’t very tough even back then, and the tattoo is now barely legible, but seeing it still sends me a twinge of embarrassment.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the idea of having the beadwork design tattooed over the Squaw tattoo came to me. I researched the various parlors throughout Cincinnati and looked at the work of several artists. I finally settled on Amber Howe at Dana’s Tattoo. I shared my mother’s story with her and she understood how important it was to incorporate the tattered elements of the beadwork into the tattoo. Her design is, indeed, an allegory of my mother’s life and I wear it proudly.
I’m not sure if Mom would have approved of me getting a tattoo at this stage in my life but for some reason I am now able to put her picture up in my house. Her framed image, the one we displayed at her funeral, lay face down in my house for months. I couldn’t bring myself to look at it. Now I pass it everyday and I feel her presence “weweni” in a good way. Free of shame, anger and resentment, her image brings me peace.