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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Spirit Beads, Resilience and Residential School

Madeleine Dion Stout

Reprinted from the "Aboriginal People" issue of Visions Journal, 2008, 5 (1), pp. 11-12

In 1994, I made a trip to Whitehorse, Yukon, where I bought a baby belt that had been hanging in the Trading Post there since 1982, the same year it was made. The baby belt was made by a beader named Doris Fulban in Old Crow, home of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the only Yukon community north of the Arctic Circle. Belts like this are worn across a woman’s shoulder and bosom and are tied at the back. They bind babies to their mothers, aunties and grandmothers for safety, security and finery.

The full length of the baby belt is decorated with showy but softly coloured, heart-shaped flowers and rich green leaves. Pearl-like grey beads cover the rest of the belt, except for the blue beads sewn all along the edges. Colourful trade beads and yarn tassels hang along one length of it.

I placed this magnificent piece of beadwork in my workspace so I could feast my eyes on it whenever I looked up from my work. I would gaze upon this beautiful baby belt, only to remember my mother, who drew heart-shaped flowers for the beadwork she never had time to do. My mother, who dreamed of having so many cows that the farthest one would be a mere dot on the horizon. My mother, the nurturer of many children who went away to residential school.

One day, after many months of training my eyes on the perfectly beaded baby belt, I was startled by some freakish beauty in it—the splash of colour, the echo, the home and the moment that can only be seen in stark contrast to faded colours, silence, homeless spirits and dying moments. A few dark-orange beads had been sewn among much lighter-coloured ones in one of the flowers. These beads were so out of the ordinary and so absorbing I couldn’t help but marvel at them.

I had discovered what are sometimes called “spirit beads.”

I knew that some bead artists deliberately place spirit beads of competing colours in an otherwise perfect design. I was also aware that discovering the rogue beads is a gift, especially if lessons are drawn from them.

The spirit beads in this baby belt move me beyond simply appreciating this beautiful work of art. On the one hand, they show me how important and dignified being different can be. On the other, the spirit beads remind me that creative, therapeutic and perfectionist handiworks reveal both human strengths and frailties.


Resilience has many meanings and manifestations.

Some see it as being able to bend without breaking and to spring back once we are bent.1 In this case, resilient people usually manage to have good lives with steady jobs, long marriages and no mental illness even though they’ve lived high-risk lives and have had many problems.2 Others say it is a search for success rather than an explanation for failure, especially where indigenous people, like First Nations, are concerned.3

Resilience is important for survival, but it is not always realized in a positive way. For example, gangs and drug dealers may show resilience, but their way of surviving does little to restore health and wholeness to families, communities and nations.

When it comes to resilience, spirit beads can show us how important it is to examine and re-examine the obvious. They teach us that resilience is quite simply getting along with people, getting through our responsibilities and getting out of situations that might cause us further harm.

Clearly, spirit beads are embedded in cultural traditions and customs. However, we Aboriginal people are not just cultural beings, even if we’re often seen as such by the rest of Canadian society. While it’s important to define who we are through our culture, this view becomes too narrow when it suggests that no one has to work hard on the non-cultural (social, political, economic) aspects of our lives—not even Aboriginal people themselves.

But resilience is not merely a catch-all basket for resolving problems like substance abuse, poverty and child neglect. It is really a power shift, and it needs to take place within all of us.

How do spirit beads, resilience and residential school relate to one another?

It is now a well-known fact that residential schools have had a negative impact on Survivors, their families and communities. In a BC-specific study of 127 survivors of the Canadian residential school system, only two subjects did not suffer a mental disorder.4

As survivors, we often remark on how difficult it is to move past our pain and to overcome the trauma we suffered from residential school. But, we are determined to get on with our lives and are doing this mostly in everyday living. Something as simple as taking time in one’s day to reflect on a human creation such as the baby belt can transform that creation into a ready and relevant tool for analyzing our experiences in residential school. In this way, resilience becomes a part of living our lives.

Spirit beads push compassion into us and pull solidarity out of us. For its part, resilience praises doers and prizes doing. The spirit beads in the baby belt that is now in my hands are merely misplaced beads until they are reasoned out. And resilience is just a personality trait, if it is not lived by us. The residential school legacy will remain a place of worthless human suffering—unless it moves all kindred spirits to create and nurture caring spaces together.

About the author
Madeleine is a member of Kehewin First Nation in Alberta and speaks Cree. She is also a Survivor of Residential Schools.* Madeleine serves on the board of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and lives in Delta, BC
  1. Vaillant, G. (1993). The wisdom of the ego. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  2. Rutter, M. (2001). Psychosocial adversity: risk, Resilience and recovery. In J. Richmond and M. Fraser (eds.), The context of youth violence: Resilience, risk, and protection. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

  3. Durie, M. (2006). Indigenous resilience: From disease and disadvantage to the realization of potential. Paper presented at the Pacific Region Indigenous Doctors Congress, Rotorua, New Zealand.

  4. Corrado, R.R, & Cohen, I.M. (2005). Mental health profiles for a sample of British Columbia’s Aboriginal survivors of the Canadian residential school system. Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.


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