While many people start their own businesses because the product of choice is something they love creating, a curveball of life and family influence can also help spur such entrepreneurship.
Such is the case with Tammy Mellott, owner of Traditional Treasures by Tammy. Recovering from her first back surgery in 2019, her mother, Laurine Lepine, tried tempting her into beading with some patterns and materials. Mellott was only focused on returning to work. Later that year, she had two more surgeries and a fourth two years later.
“I was told I would never fully recover and wouldn’t be able to go back to work. About two months later, I felt good enough to move around and sit for a while, so I got the box of supplies my mom had given me three years earlier. I thought to myself, ‘Since I can’t go back to work and I can’t do most of the things I used to love to do, maybe I can do this to pass the time.’”
She started with a pair of mini mitts to hang from a rear-view mirror, which she gave to her husband. They’re still hanging in his truck today.
From there it was onto mini moccasins and more. Mellott now creates a range of items from beaded earrings and pins to keychains and lanyards as well as medicine bags, baby moccasins, and adult beaver, rabbit and sealskin mitts.
Adult moccasins are next on the to-do list.
Mellott credits her mother with being her biggest supporter.
“She gave me my first supplies. She has dropped everything to help me when I didn’t know what to do. She has always told me how beautiful my work is. She brags to everyone that will listen about how good her daughter is. She will drive the four hours to come help me if I need it, even if it’s just for a day. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help and support of my mom.”
Though Mellott won RARA’s 2020 Artisan of the Year award just 10 months into her new venture, her proudest moments are when her mother and aunties tell her she beads just like her Grannie.
“I take that to be the highest of compliments and better than any award I could win. I know my Grannie is with me when I bead, and I wish I had started when she was still here so I could have sat with her, and had her teach me all her tips and tricks.”
She runs her business out of her home, selling her goods through Facebook and Instagram. She also attends a few markets and festivals throughout the year.
As a proud Cree Métis woman whose family is from Fort Chipewyan (Mikisew Cree First Nation), Mellott believes her talent is in her blood.
“As a result of my passion, during COVID I launched an online beading supply store, Canadian Indigenous Beading Supplies, which can be found on Facebook. I am very proud of this accomplishment and have mailed items all over Canada.”
Being a business owner is not all accolades and glory, and Mellott acknowledges a couple of her biggest challenges are her health and beading while in constant pain.
“I love what I do and would bead 24-7, but my body will only let me bead a couple of hours each day. There is so much I want to do and try, and I have so many ideas in my head, but I just can’t keep up with it and it gets frustrating.”
Mellott admits she didn’t start her new journey to be recognized and didn’t expect such success. “Hearing people tell others that my beadwork is the best around is the most amazing feeling. Something I started doing for my sanity and to help me cope with what would be my new life has turned into something I never thought it would.”
Lisa Marie Bourque can easily relate to starting a new journey when circumstances demand change. Health restrictions put in place in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic prompted Bourque to switch from her mobile aesthetics business, Eclectic Beauty Boutique, to the Fort McMurray Métis Trading Post. It was a transition she describes as easy as Métis are natural problem solvers.
“You just make the best out of every situation. It’s been a positive change. One that I feel I can connect with more people by teaching oral histories or where all my artisan items come from, and showing the connection of how we all belong and are adaptable as human beings.”
She laughs that her biggest challenge now has been growing so fast.
“I need about three or four of me to make this business work right.”
The trading post is open every weekend at the YMM Urban Market. The tables and stands offer a variety of goods including preserves and beaded items Bourque makes herself. She also harvests her own plants for medicinal use.
She explains that beading is the oldest economy in the world and every culture can connect to beads in some way.
“It’s in all our DNA. I find that sharing these stories helps everyone understand each other.”
The trading post storefront is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday on Range Road 83 off Saprae Creek Trail. That’s where customers will most likely find Cree artisan Sierra Rose working. Bourque describes her as being very passionate about keeping the original store going. While learning more about her culture, Sierra also teaches beading classes.
Bourque travels to other markets during the summer, selling her beaded earrings and preserves. Another product sold is the recently launched Bannock in a Bag she partnered with local Indigenous Chef Micheal Moar to create.
“I’m also very proud of this.”
The trading post not only showcases local Indigenous talent and goods but also from artisans across Turtle Island (North America).
“We all have gifts and bring value to this world. I believe in supporting all peoples, and being kind to each and every person that comes to my table,” says Bourque. “Ensuring they leave feeling connected, and inspired by my storytelling of the native peoples of these lands. When we walk together and understand each other, that’s truth and reconciliation. I strive on this.
“I love my native culture and histories. This is why I have incorporated Turtle Island into my storytelling and the ancient medicine wheel. I support all artisans, no matter what quadrant of the medicine wheel they hail from.”
Her heritage is a source of pride for Bourque who lived on her family’s trap line in Anzac as a baby.
“My family is from here. My grandparents were, too. My ancestral ties go all the way to Fort Chip. This is my ancestral territory: Region 1 Metis Nation. I’m as local as they come.”
Currently in her second term as president of the Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre, Bourque’s proudest business moment to date came when Indigenous Tourism Alberta started to promote her company and her story. This was how she recently discovered her ancestors had a trading post in Beaver Lake, AB.
“They are in the history books too,” she proudly exclaims. “I am carrying on their legacy. My great-great-great-great grandfather was a Métis man and he married a First Nation woman from Peeyasis Band (Lac La Biche). Now that’s something to be proud of. It’s in the bloodlines, that’s for sure. Knowing where you come from and being aware of your Indigenous roots is very empowering. Our real living histories are very important to know and keep the stories going.”
Becoming a dance teacher and studio owner was the perfect combination for Melinda Richter to share her enduring love of dance.
“I think people enjoy dance because dance is a universal language that can connect us to one another,” says the owner of YMM Dance Company, which she opened in 2018.
When she was a child, Richter was a competitive gymnast; that is, until the day a teacher visited her class to teach dance.
“I really enjoyed it. After that, I was hooked. I joined dance in the Fall and have never stopped dancing since.” She has been dancing since she was eight.
“I love all styles of dance, and living this far up north, you kind of need to be a jack of all trades when it comes to teaching dance,” she laughs. “So I teach a bit of everything, but my favourite style is jazz, hands down.”
That bit of everything also includes tap, ballet, hip-hop, lyrical and acro. Offering traditional Indigenous dance is a goal of the studio.
Lessons are offered to students of all ages, from two years to adults. Registration began on July 2 for the new season, which also heralded a new home for the company at MacDonald Island Park.
Born in Fort McMurray and raised in Janvier along with her brother, Richter loves to talk family.
“My mother’s family, the Ladouceurs, moved to Fort Chip in 1918. There is actually a documentary of my Mushum (grandfather) Frank Ladouceur called ‘The Man Who Chooses the Bush,’ that the National Film Board of Canada made.”
“My dad’s family, the Stepanowichs, have been a part of the Janvier community for over 65 years. My dad and his family are Ukrainian.”
“I feel really proud to be a part of a family who has always been proud of our heritage.”
Her parents still live in Janvier, which is also where she and her husband were married.
“So Janvier has a special place in my heart.”
A member of the McMurray Métis, one of Richter’s favourite quotes is from the late Elsie Yanik: “Make a difference. Create a better world by being kind. Kindness is enduring. Kindness is contagious. Kindness makes everyone feel good.”
She explains that she wants her studio to be a place of kindness. The children’s corner at her studio is named after the Métis Elder and it is Richter’s hope that every time someone looks that way, they are reminded that kindness is what makes YMM Dance so special.
Some of her proudest moments as a teacher come when she learns that her students want to become dance teachers.
“There is truly nothing better than watching your dancers become dance teachers, and give back and inspire the next generation of YMM dancers.”
As with many small businesses, the pandemic presented the biggest challenge for her company.
“I am forever grateful to all the YMM Dance families who stood by us during these past two years. We are still standing because of our amazing dance family.”
Colours and materials on her doorstep provide Kim Coppard with the inspiration to create her collections of handcrafted casual/traditional jewelry and accessories sold through her business, Bebi Gah Creations.
Whether the Northern Lights, the trees around her home or even key lime pie, her goods burst with vibrant hues while her beading shows traditional Dene methods. Locally sourced tanned moose hide is the base for much of her work, and Coppard also sources natural materials like bone, fur tufts, fish scales and birch bark.
A set of earrings with colourful beads mimicking the northern lights sewn onto moose hide is one of Coppard’s signature pieces.
Though most of her pieces are women’s accessories, Coppard does create some for men like tie pins and cufflinks.
“I initially started it as a hobby really. My (late) grandmother on my dad’s side beaded and sewed a lot. She made my uncles jackets and mittens, and all that cool stuff. I was like, ‘I want to learn how to do that.’
“I just picked it up naturally. I chatted with some Elders to learn more about traditional methods, but mostly, I’m self-taught,” said Coppard, who admits she learned a lot by trial and error.
After the 2016 wildfire, her beading evolved into a form of stress relief. Coppard was one of many who lost their homes in the wildfire.
“Beading brought me peace; it showed me I hadn’t lost everything in the fire.”
When she was starting out, Coppard gave the finished pieces to family and friends.
“Then other people really started to like my work and wanted to purchase it, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, okay then.’ I think around 2020 is when I started Bebi Gah.”
Bebi gah means baby rabbit in Dene. Born and raised in Fort McMurray, Coppard is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
The tribute to her Dene heritage has much sentimental value as it was a term of endearment from her late grandmother who called her grandchildren gah. It also pays homage to a nickname from a childhood friend’s family.
When she was about eight or nine, Coppard had a pet rabbit who escaped one day. As she went door to door looking for her pet, she met Amy and her mother, Marie, who were keeping the rabbit safe after it hopped into their home. Given there was already a Kim in the family, Coppard became known as Rabbit Kim to differentiate between the two.
“I wanted to include something from my culture,” says Coppard, explaining how she chose the name Bebi Gah for her company.
Bebi Gah is a home-based business, which Coppard loves as her dog, Gabe, always keeps her company. Her cat, Gilbert, is also nearby. Though she has a well-stocked workroom on the second floor of her home, her favourite place to work is curled up on an armchair by the window in her living room.
Coppard sells her work mostly on her Facebook page and at the occasional market. A limited selection of her work can now be purchased at the Fort McMurray Heritage Village gift shop.
Coppard clearly remembers the first time she did a happy dance realizing people wanted to buy her work.
“My happy dance was the first school market that I did here in Fort McMurray. Just seeing in person people not walking by, but actually stopping; coming to see my little table with my little set-up and everything, and were actually really intrigued and were interested in purchasing. It was like, ‘Wow. People like my stuff.’”
She remains awed by her swift success.
“I am still surprised people want to buy my stuff,” she giggles. “I’m just humbled by the gratitude from the community. I’ve even sold pieces across Canada.”
Her proudest moment–albeit unexpected–was winning the design competition for the award medals for the Arctic Winter Games being hosted by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
She remembers drafting a design for her own satisfaction but being hesitant to submit it so she posted it on her Facebook page, wondering aloud if she should enter it.
“My friends and family were like, ‘Yes, do it. Do it.’
“I submitted it. I was just so nervous and then I won. That was pretty cool. I am super excited to see how they’re going to replicate it into the actual medallions.
“That was one of my proudest moments.”
A goal of Coppard’s was borne out of a visit to the Ottawa Museum after the fire where she saw current and historical Indigenous goods on display.
“They were beautiful pieces,” she recalls, adding they also provided inspiration for her own designs.
“From seeing all the work and knowing all the hard work that had gone into those pieces, I thought, ‘This is going to be my goal. I want to have one of my pieces in here.”
Smoke tanning hides was a dying art, but that didn’t stop Brian Bird from making it his goal to learn this traditional skill some 35 years ago.
“I guess it’s always been with me,” smiles Bird. “I just made a decision to pursue it full time and have been doing so going on seven years now.”
It was economics that helped spur Bird’s interest in smoke tanning hides.
“I used to dance powwow and back in the 80s, we weren’t exactly very rich and the prices of materials (for powwow regalia) were expensive. So I figured, we used to make this stuff a long time ago, so why are we buying it in stores? So that’s what I learned to do.
“Later, people liked the idea that I was reviving it so I kept at it. I’ve never really stopped.”
In learning how to smoke tan hides, Bird remembers asking a lot of questions … of everyone he could find.
“I asked my mom questions and my cousins; different people on my reserve when I was a teenager. Some could barely remember so I had to go and ask some Elders.”
Smoking the hides is when the actual tanning takes place as the aldehydes (an organic compound) bond to the collagen. When a properly smoked hide is washed, it will remain soft when dried. Wash a brained hide that hasn’t been smoked and it will shrink back to its original stiffness.
Though he primarily makes smoke-tanned moose hides, the owner of Moose Hide Factory also makes hide tanning tools and teaches tanning workshops/camps.
It is hot, physically-tiring work hand scraping both sides of a hide, which is stretched tight across an upright rack while a fire crackles away in the tanning shed. There are three layers of skin on a hide. Bird wants the one in the middle, meaning the flesh and fur sides have to go.
Bird makes 80 to 100 hides a year from a variety of animals; however, moose is the predominant hide as it is the most abundant though it is the hardest to work on because of its size. It can take seven hours to scrape the hair side of a whole moose hide.
“Some of my hides are sourced locally. Some I have to travel to different reserves to obtain more moose hides. It’s only once in the odd while I’ll get to hunt for any,” says Bird, a community member of Fort McMurray First Nation #468 over the last 25 years. He is originally from Little Red River, Saskatchewan.
He admits that the business gets just a little bit harder physically each year.
“Obtaining enough moose hides to sustain ourselves for the next year can have its challenges too.”
The tools Bird makes for his own tanning are the ones he also sells to others.
“I’ve been getting kind of fancy. I’ve been using exotic hardwoods,” he said, pointing to some of the tools with their gleaming teak handles. He sands the handles, using a series of sandpaper grades up to 600 grit for the smooth finish.
Bird tests the tools, which are made with carbon steel blades, whether built for narrow or wider scraping, before the tools are sold.
While he doesn’t make anything special ordered, name recognition brings local customers to Bird to purchase his ready-made goods and he relies on Facebook Messenger to reach out-of-town customers.
“I feel honoured when people buy tools and moose hides from me, especially when I see them cherish them.
“Having my wife, Paulette, and son and daughter (Thorne and Taylor) join me in the last couple years is probably the proudest moment since I’ve been doing this.”
About the author
Carol Christian loves to write and tell people’s stories. She is a former journalist with a few awards, but no Pulitzer…yet…and loves being behind the camera catching awesome smiles and beautiful landscapes.
She is a strong believer in teamwork and helping others, and lives by the Golden Rule. Always engaged with her community, Carol is a long-time volunteer who always gives back. She thoroughly enjoys the outdoors, and all the pursuits that go with it … hiking, camping, and kayaking, and so on.
Carol is a human slave to two furry felines, believes music and books are amazing.
With a love of exploring, travelling is a big part of her life… and why her credit cards are always maxed out.