Incarcerated Indigenous women find hope for the future selling beadwork from jail

Tryli Anderson’s beadwork has come a long way since she first picked up the skill a few years ago from a roommate at the Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley.

Now, she’s one of more than a dozen Indigenous inmates at the Manitoba facility finding pride, purpose and hope for the future selling their wares with the help of a friend on the outside.

“These women feel great that people want to buy their beading and people want to buy their art,” Anderson told CBC’s Weekend Morning Show host Stephanie Cram over the phone from the jail just west of Winnipeg.

“They’re all doing a wonderful job. Their beadwork is phenomenal, amazing. And I’m very blessed and honoured to know them.” 

The 40-year-old said some of her first beadwork went to her kids, who at first couldn’t believe their mom had made what they were seeing. 

She also sent a piece to her friend in Winnipeg, who posted a picture of it online. That’s when the messages started to pour in from people asking where they could get one.

That friend, Sandra Burling, said she feels lucky to now be able to help Anderson and the 15 other women share their talent with people across the world on an Instagram account she’s set up to showcase the items.

So far, orders for beaded items like lighter cases, rosaries, earrings and lanyards have come in from across Canada, the U.S. and even as far away as Australia.

And with Christmas coming up, Burling said she’s getting beadwork in the mail almost every day now.

“It’s incredible. My organizational skills have been put to the test, that’s for sure,” she said.

The items range in cost, with the prices all set by the women making the items — who then get all the money from the sales.

Moving forward, not back

Anderson said for her, that income means being able to send some money to her kids and gradually save up for when she’s released so she doesn’t fall into old patterns and end up back in jail.

While she’s originally from Pinaymootang First Nation, Anderson became a permanent ward of Child and Family Services at age eight. She spent most of her childhood being bounced around to different homes.

“It had a huge impact on me, being in care and not being wanted anywhere and being moved and moved and moved to numerous foster homes and placements,” she said.

“I probably wouldn’t be sitting in here today if I wasn’t [in care].”

She was first incarcerated at age 18, and again a decade later when she got involved in drugs while battling addiction. Anderson said she’s been in and out of jail since then — but she’s determined to change her path.

“I want to move forward this time, not back,” she said.

“All this that happened to me, the trauma and stuff, it wasn’t my fault. And I’ve learned to fully forgive myself, I guess, and try and live differently.

“Later along the lines you can come out of all that and be something you want to be, that you dreamed to be most of your life.”

These lanyards are just one example of the kind of beadwork Anderson and the other women have been making. (Submitted by Sandra Burling)

She hopes to go back to school to get a diploma in business administration and keep helping other incarcerated women sell their beadwork from the outside.

“My dream is to … help these women that are incarcerated to establish themselves into rehabilitation,” she said.

“Knowing that they’ve made this money on their own in a positive and good way [so] that they can actually set themselves [up] when they get out.”

And while being disconnected from her home community growing up meant she didn’t have traditional teachings about her culture, she said she’s glad to have the chance to reconnect now.

Lately, she said she finds herself drawn to the image of the thunderbird in her work.

“I just find it beautiful,” she said. “It’s free, you know? It’s flying.”

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