Amid one of the most difficult times of Kathleen Sawdo’s life, when she lodged a human rights complaint about her identity as an Indigenous person against the police services out in Alberta, where she lived at the time, her father would tell her to come back home to what you know.
Carrying the deep impact of those words, she got back home to what she knew.
Sawdo went back to her hometown — Thunder Bay — she picked up the beads, and the needle, and started beading.
The beading that she learned from generations before, from her ancestors, her grandparents, parents, aunties, and elders.
As a result, in 2013, the Anishinaabe business, Sister Bear Designs was born — as a healing journey, for her and her three sisters.
Sawdo started creating these unique Indigenous handmade items, including beaded jewellery and other traditional handmade Indigenous wearable art.
The shop, which officially launched as a business in 2019, now boasts four generations of artists’ pieces and crafts, honouring their family’s history — the family is an Anishinaabe family and members of Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation with a familial connection to Fort William First Nation.
“I started the business with my family, a healing journey for myself and my sisters and it kind of brought us closer,” Sawdo said. “And then we are also just making that re-connection to the family we grew up with. My older sister and I were primarily with our grandparents, and we learned a lot from them and our cousins and aunties and uncles. And it was just something that I really thought was great to reconnect to our culture, reclaim identity and just embrace being Indigenous.”
The creations honour the family’s connection to the land. Sawdo said growing up, the bear clan sisters learned a lot from her elders — how to be in the bush, how to forage and harvest, how to fish.
But Kathleen Sawdo wondered if she did as much with her children due to changing environments in the city. And beading was one of the ways she got her kids to engage, learn and embrace the culture. Having an Indigenous own business, for her was a creative way to get her family and the community engaged with their Indigenous roots.
“What kept us [the family] together connected a little bit was the business,” she said. “The culture, entrenched in the business or the business is about culture. So now we maintain those connections through the business.”
She said that it is critical to have an Indigenous presence now, especially in Thunder Bay.
She and her other Sister Bears — Valerie Sawdo, and Malinda Staal — hope to create a safe space where Indigenous people can go anywhere and feel a sense of belonging.
“If you don't see us you forget about us,” she said. “And sometimes they forget we matter if they don't see us, and sometimes they forget how much we contribute to the city if we're not in those spaces where you don't typically see Indigenous people.”
“We must start creating those safe spaces for ourselves. So, that's what I hope to do. My sisters and I, we hope to create a safe space where our children, our nieces and nephews, and grandchildren can go anywhere in Thunder Bay as Indigenous people and feel they belong there- their space, for them and they don't have to be fearful when they're going there. That's definitely very powerful,” Sawdo said.
She also added that owning and operating the business (now located at Goods & Co) has been a healing experience for her and her sisters.
“I didn't realize something so simple in my mind, and listening to the words of my dad, go back to what you know, would have such a huge impact on my family.”
“So that's something I learned. And it really speaks again to the culture- going back to what I know.”
The sister bear also ponders over the impact the business has had — not just in the family, but also in the whole community in Thunder Bay — supporting indigenous youth and Indigenous businesses in the community.
She said the Indigenous creations are one-of-a-kind in Thunder Bay and supporting Indigenous businesses like Sister Bear Designs is one way to be an inclusive community.