An example of Indigenous beadwork gifted to the Fulcrum by Machendagoos. Photo: Rame Abulkader.

Beadwork used to teach students about mathematics, art, Indigenous culture

A recent partnership between Ottawa-based Indigenous artist Ashley-Rose Machendagoos and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) is bringing Indigenous beadwork into the public school system.

Machendagoos is the founder and owner of Zhawenim Designs, a business that centres around beadwork. She has been doing beadwork since childhood and she taught herself how to bead on a loom three years ago. Her passion for Indigenous crafts like beading and dreamcatchers led her to a job at Beaded Dreams on Bank Street. After encouragement from patrons, she founded Zhawenim Designs.

“Being surrounded by beaders, being surrounded by beadwork and beading supplies everyday and talking about beading everyday … I hit my medium, I hit my perfect thing,” said Machendagoos.

“Beading is a medicine, it has the ability to change lives on so many levels, and it’s a much more tangible medicine to use,” said Machendagoos. “This an actual hands-on medicine that you can see working.”

Zhawenim translates to “unconditional love” in Ojibwe, which captures Machendagoos’ focus on love and healing in her work.  

“The words for love in Ojibwe are, like 15 or 20 letters long, and they have layers of meaning. There’s not just one word for the word ‘love’ and there’s not just one meaning for the word ‘Zhawenim’ either,” said Machendagoos.

This is a time of rapid growth for Zhawenim Designs. They are opening an online store through Shopify and have expanded to a small staff, including marketing director Ross Chase, a Faculty of Social Sciences graduate at the U of O.

The OCDSB approached Machendagoos about bringing beadwork into the school board. Through her job at Beaded Dreams she meets many local Indigenous artists, one of whom put her name on the school board’s radar when they were looking for artists for this partnership.

In the classroom, Machendagoos will be teaching beading and the classroom teacher will be teaching mathematics. Machendagoos never thought about beading as so math-centered until the school board brought it up, and she realized all the math involved.

“It does bridge a gap between our culture and European ways of teaching. To see that mathematics is part of our teaching as well as the teaching that goes in school, just bringing it together, it involves our culture in a way that’s never been done before,” said Machendagoos.

This partnership allows students to learn about math in a fun and hands-on way, but it also allows them to learn about Ojibwe culture. It’s the perfect synthesis between mathematics, art, and education about Indigenous culture.

“I’m not teaching people mathematics like ‘this plus this equals this, it’s more like this is how we flow, this is how things are done, and at the same time I am talking about our culture,” said Machendagoos. “It’s both a learning process for learning how to bead and to get a glimpse into our culture.”

While Machendagoos has yet to deliver workshops at the University of Ottawa, she has exhibited at the Carleton University Art Gallery to give Carleton students a chance to see a loom in action and to try their hand at beadwork, and would love to bring a similar event to the U of O.

“Teaching in general is something that I absolutely love doing, so beading and teaching together is perfect,” she said.