Mike Frease

Diving Deep into Cultural Craft: Abalone Artist Michael Frease Carves Shells and Wisdom

“I promote positivity, I promote love. Even though people will hear my message about anti colonialism and Indigenizing the world, they try to see that as violent or hateful. But in actuality, what everybody has to understand is this is native land,” declares Michael Frease, an abalone artist from Northern California’s Brown Valley Tribe. Descended from generations of divers who have relied on abalone as a food source and who have traded it for jewelry since the beginning of time, Frease is continuing that tradition in Victoria, collaborating with Ahousaht artist Guy Louie Jr on abalone inlaid carvings.

This collaboration is one that harkens back to the practice of Frease’s ancestors, travelling the waterways to trade between nations. “The ancestors, we've always adapted and overcame. My belief is to Indigenize everything, to Indigenize our households, Indigenize our fashion, Indigenized our food and get back to food sovereignty, to teach the protocols and rules of our traditional way of life because this colonial nightmare is basically saying that anything goes, that it's okay,” he reflects.  

“Our true resistance is our existence, so that's what my heart represents. That's what my prayers represent. That's what my reality represents, is living born to be, not who they want me to conform to be. That's really hard in today's day and age,” he continues.  

In West Sacramento a year before Frease was born, his uncle was targeted and killed by police. His parents worked hard to connect him and his family with their culture so they could participate in ceremony. Later, Frease would be incarcerated as a youth, accused of being a gang member and of various crimes, living in a time of profound racism against Indigenous people. ”It wasn't a gang. We were just brothers protecting each other. We were brown people against colonialism,” he recalls. Youth custody was dehumanizing and what got him through was being able to participate in sweat lodge ceremonies. 

After he was released from custody, he had to decide between holding a job and participating in his culture in the way he wanted to. He chose ceremony and found his artistic practice. He started with jewelry, making earrings, helping with regalia, learning traditional shapes and designs. “Through time I start dreaming and visualizing what I wanted to see on people, and then over time ... .my shell starts talking to me, showing me who they belong to,” he shares. He could see how the jewelry he could make would empower someone based on who they are and build their cultural pride.

"We have believed that the ocean is a grandmother spirit since the beginning of time. Just like when we're born, we're born in a water sac."

Crossing into Canada through the waterways, Frease is clear about his purpose. “I'm here for my art, and to work with this artist and to touch lives. I'm not here to be an activist. I need to do what's good for me and what's good for my children. That's being up on the true teachings and the knowledge in our stories and in our connection to the universe,” he asserts. 

While life is challenging, Frease finds reasons to hope. “What inspires me every day to get through the colonial nightmare is seeing the beauty and kindness in all human beings. Anti colonialism as I am, I see the good and beauty in everybody,” he muses aloud.  “I look forward to making more jewelry to help more people to spread more love. I look forward to going against all odds and stereotypes and showing people that a native man can be compassionate and respectful and have a job and a driver's license and whatever else I need to be accepted by my own people. I'm up for the challenge,” Frease says.  

Thinking about everything his people have been through, from boarding school, trauma, the abuse of Indigenous women, he knows there’s a lot to overcome. “I strive every day to be the best person I can to create healing, create positivity, to create strength in the Bear Clan. In my tribe, the Bear Clan, we carry that strength and we carry ourselves to another standard to help our people be better people,” he explains, reflecting on how he’s mindful of who he surrounds himself with.  

"Love is in us and that's something nobody can take away from us or nobody can fool us into believing that it's not real. We need to support each other. We need to uplift each other."

In closing, Frease shares, “My inspiration to all human beings is to wake up and to be the best you can be in who you're born to be. Find yourself, find your strengths, find your passion, focus on the good… Be happy. Enjoy life. Love with your heart. Don't be afraid to love regardless of the trauma… We have to be good human beings… Don't let nobody change you or who you are… We all have a story, since the beginning of time we've been through so much as human beings, regardless of what land we live on or where we come from. But in order to change our narrative, or get out of our oppression, we have to rise above all that.” 

Promoting positivity and love, speaking out against colonialism and for Indigenization, Michael Frease is telling the world that this is native land. Diving deep into his culture coming from a long line of divers, he’s bringing to the surface his traditional practice of working with abalone to make things of beauty. Sharing his message and his art and doing what he can for his family, he’s carving out rare red abalone and rare wisdom, both precious in their own ways.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
    British Columbia
  • Date
    April 3, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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