Traditional crafters Indigenizing face masks during COVID-19 pandemic

Some Indigenous artists are channelling their anxieties about the COVID-19 pandemic into making unique face masks using traditional crafting techniques and materials. 

“During the pandemic, I’m trying to learn to relax and do stuff for me,” said Marlana Thompson from Akwesasne, a Mohawk community straddling the Ontario, Quebec and New York state borders. 

She created a mask adorned with beaded strawberries, cedar and spruce needles in the traditional Haudenosaunee raised beading style. 

The mask also says “C-19 2020” to commemorate the pandemic. 

“So that we don’t forget what happened,” Thompson said. 

Thompson said she believes that this is a time for reflection and that there are good things coming out of the situation like families coming together through physical distancing and people taking more control over their lives and the food they bring into their homes.

“I think it’s a wake-up call for everybody to be cleaner and more mindful of where they are and how they live their lives,” she said. 

The elements she included in the mask are all significant to her family, from cedar used in tea and strawberries that they harvest on their property.

The mask also has a special pocket sewn inside for sage and cedar. 

Plague doctor mask

Another mask that has “gone viral” across social media is a plague doctor style one designed by Delores Gull.

“At first I didn’t know what ‘viral’ meant until my daughter was explaining it to me,” she said.

Gull, who is Cree and a member of Weenusk First Nation in northern Ontario, currently resides in Timmins, Ont., and has been beading for 30 years. 

Delores Gull wears a plague doctor-style mask that she designed. (Faith Gull)

The idea to create the mask came after her daughter showed Gull the Facebook group Breathe, which calls on traditional bead and craft artists to use the concept of the face mask but express themselves in their design. 

“I came across this plague doctor mask and it reminded me of the ceremonies that we attend,” Gull said. 

During the bubonic plague era in Europe, plague doctors wore masks with extended bird-like beaks stuffed with aromatic plants or spices.

In Gull’s version, the thunder bolt represents ceremony, the three circles on the bottom of the beak represent life and the beaded flowers represent the medicines on the land. 

Once the mask was complete she put together an outfit including a ribbon skirt designed by Delina White and took photos with her daughter. 

Delores Gull from Weenusk First Nation created this plague doctor mask after noticing a similarity to Cree ceremonial masks. (Faith Gull)

The mask itself is made out of caribou hide that was a gift from her mother and also has hanging snowy owl feathers that were a gift from her late grandfather. 

“It means the world to me,” she said. 

Woven basket mask

Mi’kmaw artist Jennifer Pictou, who is a member of the Aroostook Band of Micmac in Maine, said she is channeling anxieties around the pandemic into her craft. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this, so I’m just working out what’s inside through some traditional methods,” said Pictou. 

Jennifer Pictou made a Mi’kmaw basket-style mask. (Submitted by Jennifer Pictou)

A bead artist by trade, she said she has made black ash work baskets and thought a basket-style mask would be a way to connect with her family while being away from them. 

“This was tapping into something that I could really work with, one of our traditional resources that is directly tied to our land,” said Pictou. 

The mask is partly tongue-in-cheek, she said, but it also has a deeper meaning.

“I sat down, I said, ‘what means the most to my tribe, my people, my community?’ And that was a utilitarian basket,” she said.  

“This is my artistic statement on cultural adaptation to what is going on today while retaining some sense of cultural identity.”

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