Erica Donovan

Connecting to Culture Bead By Bead: Erica Donovan and the Beadwork Business She Built

“Never be ashamed of where you come from. Being Indigenous is a beautiful thing, because we are the first to our land.” That’s the message Erica Donovan would give to her younger self. Growing up in the city, she felt she had to hide her identity because of the shame and racism. She’s found a way to push past in honouring who she is and her roots. 

"Never be ashamed of where you come from. Being Indigenous is a beautiful thing, because we are the first to our land."

While she’s now living in Inuvik, Erica Donovan is from Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. She later grew up in Saskatchewan. She created her business, She Was A Free Spirit, after learning how to bead at the Great Northern Arts Festival. With her newfound skills, she bought a lot of beads and built a business. The entrepreneurial spirit awakened in her at a young age, babysitting at eight years old. 

Donovan’s business branding came from her mother, a residential school survivor who faced many difficulties. Her logo was based on the boat her grandfather named after her mother. Since then, she’s rebranded but her business still honours her mother with its name. After leaving her home community as a teen, her beadwork has created a connection to her culture and allowed her to contribute through her art. 

Through her business, she wants to share hope with those who have endured difficulties like her mother. “We all have our hardships in our Indigenous communities because of colonization, and this is a way for me to show everybody that, ‘Okay, this doesn't define us. We can still succeed, and it is up to us’” she explains. Checking in with the youth coordinator, finding out what youth are up to and struggling with in her hometown, she is always looking for ways to help and inspire. “Anybody can do what I do,” Donovan continues. 

Her advice for young people leaving their home community recognizes their experiences are different than hers. With the advent of social media, they have an opportunity to stay connected even from afar. “Sometimes you have to leave your community for formal education. Do what you need to do in your path… never forget where you come from because that's your roots,” she advises.

Illustration by Shaikara David

The biggest obstacle she’s faced is that she is a one person team and there’s heavy demand for her work. Donovan needs an assistant but can’t afford one and she’s learned a valuable lesson in her perseverance. “Always keep the mindset of moving forward. There's an opportunity to be had,” she suggests. In the future, she hopes to employ youth in her home community but until then she’s doing her best to keep up given all the national recognition she’s received.  

Some of that recognition came from winning $10,000 through an award through Simon’s retail store. Up against artists who were featured on Entertainment Tonight and Vogue magazine, her design called Tuktoyaktuk Skies won out. She’s made seven pairs that are for sale exclusively through the store. While Donovan was nervous about the nomination, she never gave up hope that she would win, feeling deep inside she would triumph. 

What she’s found in addition to success is community. She’s participated in Indigenous Fashion Week. and been part of a lot of amazing opportunities and the people she’s met along the way have made all the difference. “Once you're amongst your Indigenous people, you’re home. There's always this family feel. That's something that's just natural to us. It’s very welcoming. It doesn't matter if you're from a different tribe… it's like we are all family you know?” Donovan beams. 

These days, her biggest inspiration is to see her people succeed and heal. She tries to imbue that in every piece she sends out. “When one succeeds, we all succeed, and if we all keep succeeding, then it will be a beautiful, peaceful world,” Donovan muses aloud. “When you move forward, you have to heal what is inside of you and so love is my biggest inspiration. In anything in life, whether hard or happy, you respond in love, and when you respond in love, the universe has a way of taking care of you. I'm an example of that. I just try to do everything with love and healing, if that makes sense,” she continues. 

To balance her mental health and wellbeing, she takes to the land and feels the earth on her feet. It’s a purifying energy. Donovan also likes to be around water, finding healing there. Going back to family and going back to nature, she connects with peace and healing. 

With pride in where she comes from, Erica Donovan knows being Indigenous is a beautiful thing, much like the beadwork she creates. Connecting to her culture one bead at a time, she’s crafting works of art that honour her homelands and also her mother. She Was a Free Spirit isn’t just her business name, it’s a way of life and she’s rising through recognition of her hard work.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
  • Province/Territory
    Northwest Territories
  • Date
    March 6, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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