Beading did not come naturally to Alexa Lizotte.
She thought it would be easy. The craft was part of her family’s culture after all. The Métis are the flower beadwork people.
But Lizotte didn’t grow up in her home community. Her father left the North Vermilion Settlement in Alberta as a young man and made a home for himself and his future family in Las Vegas, Nevada. He met his wife and they had three children: Lizotte and her two brothers.
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She grew up away from her extended family and culture, which led to feelings of loneliness and confusion about how she fit into the world.
“We have a lot of trauma in our community,” Lizotte says. “He [dad] wanted to keep his children away from that.”
Though Lizotte did attend powwows in Nevada, they were hosted by the Paiute people and she didn’t feel a connection.
After graduating high school, she felt a pull to seek out her culture.
“I had always felt really lost,” she says. “I just felt like I didn’t know who I was.”
Lizotte moved to Vancouver to study psychology and sociology at the University of British Columbia where she connected first with the First Nations Longhouse and then with the Urban Native Youth Association. She was meeting others like herself, people who grew up isolated from their culture. She found a community full of acceptance.
“I grew more comfortable there,” she says. “That was where I was able to ask more questions and just be really curious about my culture.”
The struggle to learn the craft
Lizotte was introduced to beadwork through the organization. She says she felt like her struggles to pick up the craft mirror the disconnection she felt from her Métis culture.
“I was frustrated a lot of the time because I felt like I should have picked it up naturally,” she says.
It took Lizotte about five years to complete her first beaded project: an eagle feather gifted to her by a summer camp for Indigenous youth where she’d worked.
“So that was about five years of me trying to learn this craft and knowing that is what my family did, but I couldn’t do it,” she says. “It was really hard for me.”
Beadwork is as much a technical skill as it is an art. The beads themselves are tiny — a fraction of a centimetre—and the artist has to be able to see both the piece as a whole as well as the tiny section they are working on.
Around the time she completed that first project, Lizotte moved to North Vermilion Settlement. The community had been hit hard by a flood in the spring of 2020 when the Peace River jumped its banks. About 150 families were displaced, their homes lost.
Lizotte started a position with Alberta Health Services as a mental health support worker in the community post flood. When the contract ended, she accepted a position with the local Métis organization. The opportunity was perfect.
“It was helping me reconnect to my culture because I was helping others connect within the community,” she says. “It was all-encompassing and a beautiful experience.”
Finishing the eagle feather was another step in her cultural journey. The next was starting a business centred around her newly-developed skills.
“I finally felt confident in my abilities and I was ready to share,” she says.
Lizotte launched Desert Métis Creations in 2020. She specializes in beading and sewing, specifically traditional Métis ribbon skirts.
Her beadwork is evocative of textiles from her culture. The current line features the Métis sash with colours close to Lizotte’s heart.
She often uses red in her work. It was her grandmothers’ favourite colour. They only met once, but Lizotte was told her grandmother was a big presence in town.
“She was always known for wearing red and they even call it Buttertown Red,” she says. Buttertown is an unofficial name for North Vermilion Settlement.
Lizotte returned to B.C. in April this year, landing in Port Coquitlam. It wasn’t until after she left that she realized how her home community was being altered by climate change.
“I’m seeing that there is now a flood in a nearby community basically every year since,” she says. “When I was living there post flood, I didn’t really make the connections between the habits that we have in our culture today that’s been really harmful to the planet.”
Escape from fast fashion
She began researching the effects of fast fashion on the environment. She found that fast fashion — cheap clothing manufactured quickly and usually of poor quality — accounts for about 10 per cent of the carbon emissions on the planet.
The fabrics used in fast fashion is often not of high quality. Consider polyester, a synthetic fabric made from petroleum products. It doesn’t decompose for tens to hundreds of years. Compare that to a cotton fabric, an organic textile, which has a decomposing life of a few months.
Lizotte recently started a new project that relates sustainable methods to Métis and Indigenous culture. Inspired by the stories she’d heard about Métis women using berry juice and other elements from the land to dye porcupine quills, she is experimenting with naturally-derived dyes to colour plain cotton fabric.
The skills have come in handy. A customer has requested a ribbon skirt that is entirely organic.
The colours that appear from natural sources can be surprising. During one experiment, Lizotte used a bright purple cauliflower and beets from a local farm. “I boiled the cotton and boiled the vegetables and this beautiful almost purple-red came out,” she says. “It was just so gorgeous.”
Lizotte plans to continue experimenting with natural dyes. In the meantime, she’s also working part-time with the Urban Native Youth Association in Vancouver. It’s the same organization that helped her discover her culture all those years ago. Her specialty is in leading workshops and lecturing.
“Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re not,” she says. “Your family lineage is within you and it’s up to you to let it shine through you.”