Planting Seeds for Future: Karen Wright Fraser Reclaims and Teaches Traditional Skills of the Past
In a special cultural class at school when she was growing up, Karen Wright-Fraser learned to sew, bead, embroider, and speak her language from an elder she loved. It was her favourite class and she carried the lessons with her. “She planted seeds for me for my future,” she recalls. These days, she does Indigenous arts and crafts professionally, which includes a lot of sewing, making outfits and jewelry. She grew up in Inuvik, Northwest Territories and now lives in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
When she had her first baby, the urge to create came upon her strongly with the pregnancy hormones and she started sewing and beading. While it isn’t work she’s proud of from a technical perspective, she’s held onto her first piece as a reminder of how strongly she craved making things with her hands.
“Now, 40 years later, I'm still doing it. That's what I do for a living and it's a good thing. It makes me feel really good when I create something, and then my customers, when they're happy, that makes me happy too. But my favorite part is to teach young people any of the traditional techniques,” she smiles.
With the history of residential schools, many of these practices weren’t handed down and many in her community felt they lost their identity. “When we pick up these traditional skills that our parents, our grandparents, and even great grandparents used to work with, when we start learning those, honestly, it just does something to your spirit. I feel more whole. I feel really good. It makes me feel stronger and it makes me walk in a good way,” she continues.
Part of walking in a good way, from Wright-Fraser’s perspective, is treating people well. She learned that from her mother, who struggled with alcohol but had a big heart. Her mom told her, “Always smile and you're always going to have friends” and it’s a practice she follows to this day, hoping her smile brings others comfort.
Wright-Fraser has been sober herself for 33 years. She went through treatment after losing her mother. She had young children of her own and wanted to raise them differently so she asked for help from an elder at her workplace. Asking for help was really hard because of the shame, but it was an important step she had to take.
In addition to overcoming alcohol, Wright-Fraser learned to overcome fear. Her bravery helped her learn to facilitate workshops for people so they could find answers to problems. She gives herself homework to get over her fears and move past them, something that ultimately makes her feel better about herself.
The advice she has for young people is to focus on goals, working up to big goals with smaller ones while building confidence. Mostly, she instills the importance of learning. “Education is the way out of a bad cycle. If there's poverty, if there's alcoholism, in the home, or the community, if there's lots of social issues, education helps you to get out of that,” she explains. She cautions youth leaving their home communities to practice moderation with alcohol and maintain balance.
Drinking is a way some people try to fit in, but she encourages youth to find that sense of belonging through cultural teachings and time spent in community at Friendship Centres. “The more you learn, the more you're going to feel like you fit in, you're going to ground yourself as to who you are. Your feet could be planted on the ground and walk proud. Fill yourself up with that instead of substances and you're going to do well,” she advises.
Something she wishes she learned sooner was how to set boundaries and say no. Juggling a family, a full time job with the government and her own business, her plate was very full. She would stay up late to finish things and it wasn’t good for her. Now she has more balance and feels good most of the time.
She likes to involve people in the community in her projects, buying piecework beads off of other crafters in her community. Treating people fairly is important to her, given many ladies she works with don’t value their time or themselves as much as they should. She gets help assembling earring kits she could make herself so she can share the wealth in community.
When working on a big project, she likes to clear the negative energies out of the air, smudging herself and her materials so she can start off with good energy. Wright-Fraser does her work with good feelings so they come through in what gets handed off to the customer. As she smudges the furs and leathers, she thanks the spirits of the animals they came from, sometimes feeding a plate of food in the fire with gratitude.
A gifted book from the Museum of History once inspired Wright-Fraser. There was a photo of traditional Gwitchin clothing and at the time, she didn’t even know there was traditional clothing of her community. She felt sad she had been unaware, thinking, “When I was a young girl, I needed to see this so I could feel good about where I came from”, and then mourned what she now no longer had access to. She wrote to the museum to ask permission to make a replica and a video of it to educate youth.
That request turned into a much larger project she worked on with 40 other women to make outfits for the museum that showcased their communities’ traditional practices. “We learned skills that were lost 130 years ago,” she smiled. It was challenging and there were times they didn’t think they would finish, praying to the ancestors for help. After walking away from their traditional clothing, having been shamed by people to sell more mainstream clothing, Wright-Fraser sees her community reclaiming their traditional clothing and the skills to make it with pride.
An elder she loved planted seeds for her future in a cultural class at school when she was growing up. After Karen Wright-Fraser learned to sew, bead, embroider, and speak her language, those seeds blossomed into a career making Indigenous arts and crafts professionally. Sewing, making outfits and jewelry, she’s reclaiming traditional skills from the past and making a better tomorrow as she teaches youth to be proud of who they are. She plants seeds for the future just like her elder did forty years ago, doing what her people have always done, and doing it with a good heart.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.