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Indigenous beadwork flourishes on Instagram
A pair of earrings, beaded onto smoked hide, by the Cherokee artist Tayler Gutierrez. Photo: Tayler Gutierrez.

by Anna V. Smith

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Last year, after the museum that Tayler Gutierrez worked at in Salt Lake City closed temporarily because of the coronavirus, she turned to her beadwork.

A citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Gutierrez, 24, had been practicing beadwork for years after learning from a mentor, Diné poet Tacey Atsitty, and she already had a modest following on her Instagram page, where she posted her custom hat brims, earrings and leather pouches.

But when the museum reopened in May, Gutierrez decided to take a much bigger leap: She put in her resignation notice and committed full time to her craft.

In July, she dropped her first collection of beadwork on Instagram. It included a set of earrings layered with two-tiers of dentalium shells and Swarovski crystals, and another pair with blooming flowers stitched with beads onto moose hide.

She teased the 30 pieces in the collection with photos on Instagram before she made them available for sale, but with relatively few followers she wasn’t expecting many people to buy.

Instead, everything sold in five minutes.

Gutierrez was shocked but thrilled — especially after the months of labor and love she had put into the work. (It takes around eight hours to make one pair of floral beaded earrings.) “Beadwork is definitely a very time-consuming process, which I think is one of the most beautiful things about it,” Gutierrez said in a Zoom call. “It’s definitely slow, slow fashion.”

Gutierrez just started her business ‘Kamama Beadwork last year, but she is one of many Indigenous beadwork artists on Instagram who have seen a spike in followers and sales that far outpaces their available stock.

Partially, that is because with craft fairs, powwows and art markets shuttered, many vendors and buyers are relying more heavily on the internet. The most common avenues are through social media — particularly Instagram — or e-commerce websites like From the People, which launched in May as an online market space for Indigenous artists.

Sales have been spurred by a national dialogue around racial injustice that has led to increased efforts to support Black and Indigenous artists and businesses.

But sales may also owe an uptick to the competitive consumer culture of Instagram drops. Many independent artisans don’t keep large inventories, but release their wares in small batches all at once — alerting followers far in advance of the specific time and date that their work will become available for purchase. It is first come, first served, and those who miss their window just have to wait until the next time.

Bead Drops
As Ojibwe fashion writer Christian Allaire has documented, the beading world is full of Indigenous artists blending traditional methods and contemporary forms: for example, Jamie Okuma and her beaded Louboutin stilettos; Skye Paul and her tattoo-inspired beaded patches or cow print beaded fringe earrings; and Tania Larsson’s fine jewelry made from musk ox horn and other natural materials of the Canadian Arctic.

On Instagram, these artisans and others have amassed huge followings. When they drop collections or individual pieces, they sell out in minutes. Followers set alarms, pre-log into PayPal and have to buy as soon as the goods are available if they want a chance to snag anything at all. Recently, the same is true for Indigenous artists with half the number of followers, including Gutierrez.

Jaymie Campbell of White Otter Design Co. is one beadwork artist who has perfected the art of the Instagram drop. Campbell is Anishinaabe, from Curve Lake First Nation near Ontario, Canada, and known for her elegant natural tones and floral designs with century-old beads and hides she often tans herself. Some designs are passed down from her family (her grandmother Joyce was a quillwork artist); others she creates, she said, using color palettes from her dreams.

As a full-time beader, Campbell made an Instagram account in 2016, a year after starting her business. At the time, there were seemingly fewer accounts by fellow artists, Campbell said. But that has changed somewhat suddenly, as the isolation of the pandemic has connected more people in the digital sphere. Virtual beading circles — online versions of community gatherings where beaders share techniques — have popped up, and many artists have experienced a surge in followers.

“The growth has been unprecedented, in my experience,” Campbell said from her home in New Denver, British Columbia (population 473). On Indigenous People’s Day alone she gained over 2,000 followers from people promoting her work on social media.

But in beadwork economics, more demand doesn’t necessarily mean more supply — and that is an important aspect of the work itself. As Indigenous studies scholar and bead artist Malinda J. Gray, who is Anishinaabe Ojibwe Caribou Clan, from the Lac Seul Band, has written: “Beadwork encompasses a temporality that transcends the capitalist view of exchange.”

Beadwork knowledge, materials and motifs are passed down through generations, Gray said, and those layers of time, meaning and memories give a piece of work “its own essence. And that’s something that cannot be mass produced.”

For Campbell, the amount she puts into every piece means it isn’t possible to fully scale up to meet demand, and that is OK. Each earring or pendant is “a piece of me, and my family and my story,” she said.

Slowing Down, With Social Media
Growing up in Washington state near the Upper Skagit Reservation, Gutierrez didn’t learn as much as she would have liked about her Cherokee heritage. Beadwork has been one way of reconnecting. She researches traditional Cherokee beadwork, blending it with her own designs. “Their beadwork is really different from, say, someone who’s Lakota who uses geometric designs traditionally,” Gutierrez said of Cherokee artists. “The beadwork of my people is just super whimsical and ethereal.”

Those adjectives could also describe Gutierrez’s work. Her use of color is bright and bold, with pops of Southwest sky blue and salmon egg orange, while her earring designs include a set of beaded blooms with a pom of tawny marten fur that hangs just above the shoulder.

In December, Gutierrez moved with her husband from Utah to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she has begun studying fine art at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She also released a batch of beaded earrings with B. Yellowtail, an Indigenous fashion collective, and has begun plans for an Indigenous-centered photo shoot for her summer 2021 collection.

Gutierrez said she is still surprised by the swiftness in response to her work. “I think of myself as a farm kid still,” she said. “It’s always going to be slow, and mindful.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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