A talented beader from northern Quebec has created a COVID-19 mask to pay tribute to how Cree and other Indigenous communities are dealing with the pandemic.
Flora Weistche, 41, says the mask is also a way to honour Cree elders who have lost their battle with the virus.
“I always make sure there is a story behind the beadwork I do,” Weistche said in Cree.
Weistche lives in Sainte-Catherine, Que., an off island suburb on the south shore of Montreal, but is originally from Waskaganish, about 1,200 kilometres north of Montreal.
“I am not a good storyteller in front of a crowd. This is my way of telling a story through the beadwork I do,” said Weistche.
She recently finished a beaded deerskin mask. Weistche said it was her son Tristan who encouraged her to make a mask, as it was becoming a trend on social media to share photos of unique masks people were wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I beaded 10 flowers that represent all the Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee,” said Weistche, using the traditional name for the Cree territory in Quebec.
“At the front of the mask, I beaded the image of a COVID-19 [molecule] that also looks like a stop sign,” said Weistche, adding it represents the idea of blocking the virus.
Honouring elders who died
Weistche also beaded a map of the province of Quebec with a purple forget-me-not flower. In the middle of the map are three red beads in memory of the three Cree elders who died from COVID-19 since March. The red beads highlight the home communities where the elders came from — Whapmagoostui, Wemindji, and Mistissini, she said.
Weistche said she contacted the families of the elders to ask for permission.
The mask is also meant to acknowledge the Cree leadership, such as the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay and the Cree School Board. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 11 COVID-19 cases reported in the Cree communities, all related to travel to the South.
“The Cree leadership [has] worked very hard in informing the people about COVID-19 and managed to stop the virus from reaching their communities,” said Weistche.
The mask is called “Bella” and is dedicated to the chairperson of the Cree health board, Bella Moses Petawabano. Petawabano’s husband Buckley contracted and recovered from COVID-19 at the long-term care home where he lives in Montreal.
“I was amazed how hard she worked and of the things she went through personally during the time. I wanted to acknowledge Bella for her hard work during these trying times” said Weistche.
Featured in museums
In 2018, Weistche beaded a full caribou hide in honour of all Indigenous women on Turtle Island. The finished work is called “My Grandmother’s Garden“, and is currently in storage at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou.
Now, the Museum of Indigenous People in Prescott, Arizona, has reached out to Weistche and plans to display photos of the beaded “Bella” mask.
Weistche said it is not meant to be worn, but for display and is being kept in a glass case at her home.
“It is also a reminder of how the year 2020 has been,” said Weistche.