To honour Indigenous history and celebrate National Indigenous History Month, we’re spotlighting up-and-coming Indigenous artist and jewellery maker, Adrienne Larocque, and her brand Kihew and Rose.
Adrienne Larocque is a Nehiyaw Iskwew (Plains Cree Woman) from Maskwacis, Alberta, who lives, works, and creates on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples (Vancouver). Along with working full-time as a program coordinator for the First Nations Technology Council (a BC-based non-profit that aims to make jobs in the tech sector more accessible to Indigenous people) she’s also the creator of Kihew and Rose, a line of handmade accessories created with traditional Indigenous materials such as home-tanned hides, animal bone, shells, and beads. Following the launch of her latest collection, Hillberg and Berk chatted with Adrienne about her journey to becoming a beader, how she’s using beadwork to reconnect with her culture, and why those cultural ties were lost in the first place.
Interview by Mica Lemiski
Hillberg & Berk: How did you land on the name “Kihew and Rose” for your jewellery business?
Adrienne Larocque: So my Cree name—given to me by my late grandfather, my Mosom —is Kihew Iskwew, which means Eagle Woman. When I was thinking about names that aligned with my beadwork, I wanted something that represented a part of me but I didn’t want to use my full name. So I pulled Kihew. As for Rose, growing up, there were a lot of wild roses that grew in the field near where I lived in Alberta. So for me, Kihew and Rose reminds me of who I am as an Indigenous person, and also where I come from.
What is your origin story as a beader? How did you get started?
I know a lot of Indigenous women who learned beading techniques from their grandparents or family members, but beading techniques weren’t passed down to me that way. I’ve only been beading for about four years now. I grew up in my community—Maskwacis located in Treaty 6 territory in Alberta—but I was very disconnected from my culture as a result of the Indian residential school system. All of my grandparents and my parents went to residential schools (my parents went to day school and my grandparents went to the boarding schools) and these schools were designed to remove and isolate children from their homes and their families, traditions, and cultures. Unfortunately, it was a really well-designed system. Because of that, myself and my whole family were not exposed to a lot of these cultural traditions, including traditional art practices like beading.
I did have one beading lesson from my cousin when I was a teenager, but I was very young and very impatient! I gave up, thinking it wasn’t something I’d ever do. But I’ve always loved sewing. I used to make little patches and pouches on my Kokom’s ’s sewing machine, and all through my formative years I was sewing and learning how to pattern-draft and stuff. And so after high school and one year of general studies in college, I moved to Vancouver and took a fashion design diploma program. I had that background in sewing and thought, if I go into fashion, what could happen for me? But when I graduated from the program, I was discouraged by the competitiveness of industry, the lack of paid internships, and the distance away from my family. I was being called home. I went back to my community, and after working in education for two years, I just felt like I wasn’t really growing as a person. I decided to go back to school, this time focussing on Native Studies at the University of Alberta. That program completely shifted everything for me.
Oh wow—in what way?
Native Studies taught me so much about the residential school system, Canadian legislation, and how historical injustices against Indigenous people really created the world that myself and my community lived in. I always knew residential schools existed, but I didn’t know how they were structured in a way that forced Indigenous people to assimilate into the dominant culture. I just didn’t know this. Taking the Native Studies program gave me historical perspective and taught me about the Indian Act and how it still impacts Indigenous people today. It really opened my eyes. I just understood my world better.
It sounds like you had a whole new context put on your life.
For sure. Because if you don’t have the language to describe your experience, or the understanding of why you live a certain way, then how are you supposed to know? That program helped me understand why my upbringing and my family was the way it was, and why I didn’t have that connection to my culture. So I finished that program and graduated with my Bachelor of Arts Degree. It took me ten years to get my undergrad degree—that growing and learning process took time—but I did it. From there, I started building a career for myself. I began working with government and non-profit organizations to try and remove barriers for Indigenous people to access post secondary education opportunities. I also started looking for community classes to take in Edmonton, and I found a series of free workshops for First Nations women living in the city. I signed up, went to a beading class, and discovered this amazing group of people, including one woman with whom I had community ties I wasn’t aware of before. She demonstrated to us how to do a two-needle beading technique, and something just clicked. Since then, I’ve been beading non-stop.
I’m wondering if growing up without that understanding of your cultural history affected your relationship to your Indigeneity as a young person? And did you ever feel ostracized or othered as an Indigenous person?
I’ve definitely experienced instances of discrimination and racism and being stereotyped for the way I look, and it was definitely something that I struggled with growing up. Back then I wasn’t proud to be Indigenous because of the way I had been treated. To cope, I would try my best to blend in with the world and not draw too much attention to myself. But education really helped me become stronger in my Indigenous identity. My Native Studies program helped me shape that strong Indigenous identity for myself and better understand who I was and where I came from. I was able to develop stronger values because of it.
It sounds like that program really helped you go from feeling shameful to really feeling proud of your Indigeneity.
Yeah. One of the things I think about often is the collection I designed at the end of my fashion diploma program. When I look at that collection—it was beautifully made and I’m really proud of all the hard work I put into it—but you know, the inspiration for it didn’t come from me being an Indigenous person. I didn’t base those designs off my own lived experience or connect them to my Cree culture. I look at the collection and think about how you can’t tell that an Indigenous person made it, which is not to say that it needed to look Indigenous, but more that I just don’t see myself reflected in that work. Now that I’ve really grown to love beading and have built it into my life, I see myself reflected in the work that I do, whereas that wasn’t the case with my graduation collection.
I also have to say, your jewellery is hot right now. Going on your website, a couple hours after your collection dropped last Friday, I kept seeing sold out, sold out, sold out. How does that feel?
It’s weird! But it feels really great to see the support of the community—because that’s really what it is. It’s just inspiring, and it encourages me to continue to work. Working on that most recent collection—it took a long time. At the start of the pandemic, I was able to leave Vancouver (where I’m based) and go home to my family in Alberta, which really relaxed me, but still, for about a month I could not bead. I felt all this heightened anxiety, and so I didn’t touch my bead cases. There are so many teachings that go with beading, and one is that it’s not only an artform but a cultural practice, and so you always want to be in a good frame of mind and a good heart space when you bead. It’s an act of love, the way I see it. At the start of quarantine, I wasn’t feeling the right way, and so I couldn’t do it. But eventually, as things got better and I felt more calm, I started thinking, what’s something new that I can do? I began thinking of new designs, chipping away at it, and it grew into this really beautiful collection.
Can you talk a bit about what inspired the colours and shapes in your new collection? There seem to be a lot of references to Alberta’s native plant-life.
They’re based on plants that grow in Canada and are known to grow in Alberta, but what really drew me to that style of work was the feeling of going back a season, from spring to winter, which is what happened when I travelled from Vancouver to Alberta at the start of isolation. I got to experience the snow melting, the little signs of spring coming to life, and the regrowth all around me. Growing up in Alberta, the change of seasons has always been a big part of my life.
Yeah, I guess Vancouver has a very different kind of spring. There’s no big thaw like there is in the prairies.
Exactly, and traditionally in Indigenous communities, there were specific patterns and styles you recognized as belonging to certain Nations. Like you could tell where someone was from by the patterns and colours of their beadwork, and sometimes you could even tell what family they were from! The idea was, your beading reflected your surroundings. So for me it’s been really interesting because, like I mentioned before, I didn’t grow up with access to that passed-down knowledge. I don’t have any family patterns to reference—at least that I’m aware of—so I’m in this process of creating my own beading identity.
Do you know what the future of Kihew and Rose looks like? What’s next for you in a business sense?
That’s definitely the big question right now! Kihew and Rose is different than a traditional jewellery company in the sense that it’s all handmade and it’s very much an art—not to say that other jewellery isn’t art—but a lot of time goes into these pieces. I think I’m most well known for my smaller, more wearable, everyday earrings, but I’m also interested in reclaiming traditional practices like making moccasins or shawls. I’ve been thinking about starting to focus on larger pieces and acquiring traditional hides and other workable materials that are sourced in a good way. I would love to see the business grow from here, but I’m not really sure what that looks like yet, which is exciting! I think it could grow beyond what I even imagine, but as a smaller business owner I’m at the point where I’m still currently doing everything. It’s hard to meet the demands right now, to be honest.
Do you ever take commissions? So much of your online shop is sold out...
Oh yes for sure. That’s actually how I started—by doing commissions and requests. It got to be too much to manage and so I started being more strategic, like doing a collection at a time, releasing it, and seeing how it went. But I do love taking special occasion requests. I’ve created earrings and jewellery for three or four weddings and a couple of graduation ceremonies, and I find it to be a lot of fun. You know, as long as the project is the right fit and I have the time and capacity, then I will consider it.
How do you feel about non-Indigenous people engaging in beadwork or wearing your designs? I think sometimes people ask themselves, am I being appropriative if I’m wearing something that looks traditionally Indigenous when I’m not Indigenous myself?
I think it’s actually really important for non-Indigenous people to support Indigenous artists and business owners. I get that question a lot from people, like, is this cultural appropriation? It’s not. Unless you are a non-Indigenous person making Native-inspired work. If you’re buying from someone who is an authentic Indigenous person, then we’re happy to see you wearing our work. At markets, I had to learn quickly that I’m not just a vendor, but also an educator in the sense that I need to let people know it’s okay to buy my beadwork. It’s like, that’s why I’m here! That’s what I want you to do!
We’re reckoning with some big social justice issues right now—I’m speaking particularly of Black Lives Matter and racialized police violence. Given how police brutality disproportionately affects Indigenous people in Canada (just as it does Black people and other people of colour), I’m wondering how you feel about the way people in Canada are reacting to all the current news? There’s a lot of talk right now, but do you feel supported as an Indigenous person?
It’s tough because I wouldn’t necessarily say that I feel supported as a First Nations woman. Every day, something new happens and, as an Indigenous person, it’s a lot to take in because I really feel for the Black Lives Matter movement—there are a lot of similarities in terms of what both our communities experience with police violence. But from what I’ve witnessed and what I’ve seen on social media, it seems that Canadians have been more supportive of this movement because it’s at an arm’s length. Canadians are still reluctant to take ownership and take action against injustices that are happening against Indigenous people in Canada. They can acknowledge that racialized violence is happening somewhere else but not that it’s happening here. You mentioned that more people are starting to talk about all this, but it doesn’t feel like a whole lot has changed. I don’t see much shifting yet. There needs to be more awareness of what’s happening here in our own country.
What do you hope non-Indigenous people—people who consider themselves allies—are doing right now to take action against these injustices? Are there particular things that would be meaningful to you personally?
I think it’s really about taking the initiative to educate yourself. There are so many resources already available for people to access, one of them being the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They publish calls to action and they’ve also interviewed survivors of residential schools. One of the things I always used to hear our elders say is, we’ve already shared our stories. The stories are there, so you need to read them now. It’s about taking the time to really learn about Indigenous people who have been here since time immemorial.
Thank you for sharing that. It’s always tricky because, as a white person, I know it’s not great to keep asking Indigenous people, you know, “what can I do to help?” because that’s like saying “help me help you!”. I think for non-Indigenous people like myself, it’s really important to find ways to help that feel good in a personal sense. So for me, that looks like reading up on history, buying Indigenous art, bringing food to my Indigenous friends to show I support them—things like that.
Yeah, I think those are all really great things you mention. It's also important to have tough conversations with your own friends and family members, and to speak up when racist or inappropriate comments are made about Indigenous people. As an Indigenous person, we're not only subjected to stereotypes in the media but in our daily interactions, and to have to explain that again and again to people is just exhausting. At some point, there needs to be a shift. It can’t just be about us retelling these stories when we’ve told them time and time again. There does need to be initiative and uptake from other people from different backgrounds.
I agree, and thank you so much for taking the time to share your own story today. Are there any Indigenous artists who have inspired you or acted like mentors throughout your journey?
One person that has been very influential in my beading journey is Heather Dickson of Dickson Designs. She is an artist from the Yukon and is Tlingit from the Carcross Tagish First Nation and Nuxalk Nation from Bella Coola, BC. She creates beautiful and intricate beadwork and is well renowned for her beaded Granny Hanky Headbands. Her beadwork is serious goals! Since I started my business she has provided so much encouragement and given me so much advice when it comes to her knowledge of running a business.
That’s amazing! Is there anything else you’d like to add or that you want people to know about?
Because I didn’t start beading until I was a bit older, I just want to let people know that beadwork is something you can start at any time. Just because you may not have learned something when you were younger or didn’t have access to these cultural understandings—it doesn’t mean you can’t learn. Reciprocity is a big part of what I do. Because I have been gifted with this knowledge, I want to be able to share it with other First Nations people as well. It’s really important for me to be able to pass on the knowledge I have to the next generation.
I love that you say this because I feel like so many artists treat their art like this very exclusive, private thing—as in, “this is my idea and I own it”. It’s a super individualistic and status-driven way of thinking about art, and I like that your work doesn’t play into that. Your beading feels deeply engaged in community.
Beading really is a communal activity! It was something that Indigenous women did together so there is a lot of storytelling and sharing that occurs when you’re in these beading circles. To be able to create that experience for other people—it’s such a privilege to do that. Finding a way to learn how to bead was very difficult—I had to take a class instead of learn from family—and I don’t want it to be that hard for other people. Especially if you’re a First Nations person, beading shouldn’t be that inaccessible. I always think back to my Kokom, my late grandma. She was still alive when I first started beading and so she would watch me. She would stand over my shoulder and ask me, you know, “how do you choose the colours?”. She always used to tell me stories about how she wanted to learn to bead as a kid but wasn’t able to. It really breaks my heart that she had to go through what she did.
Those moments watching you must have made her really proud.
I think it’s important to acknowledge my Kokom’s role in all of this. Even though she didn’t know how to bead, I like to think that we could have beaded together.
Well just looking at the designs, you can tell there’s so much love and care put into them.
I really do try. I try to put good energy into it and to make it with good intentions.