Affiliated with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, Esme Bailey’s culture served as inspiration for her CREATE! Micro-Grant project.
The Michigan State University senior, who is majoring in English with minors in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and American Indian and Indigenous Studies (AIIS), grew up in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, near the Isabella County Indian Reservation. She applied for and received a 2022 CREATE! Micro-Grant for $500 to make a set of jewelry consisting of a medallion and a pair of earrings designed as a contemporary version of traditional Anishinaabe beadwork.
“My project is influenced by my culture as an Anishinaabekwe (Anishinaabe woman),” Bailey said. “Other than culture, my art as a whole is forever influenced by the generations of beaders, quill workers, and artists that I come from. I find pride and hope in the sense that the past one or two generations and I are able to dance traditionally, to sing, to drum, and, in my case, to bead when so many of our ancestors were stripped of these cultural rights and privileges by centuries of forced colonization, assimilation, and generational ethnocide. We, this seventh generation, are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
“I find pride and hope in the sense that the past one or two generations and I are able to dance traditionally, to sing, to drum, and, in my case, to bead when so many of our ancestors were stripped of these cultural rights and privileges.”
Using symbols that represent certain meanings within the Anishinaabe culture, Bailey incorporated symbols into her CREATE! Micro-Grant project that represent her journey of personal growth since the COVID-19 pandemic began and that highlight her path to this point in her life.
Bailey’s name in Anishinaabemowin is Gaagegiiziigokwe, which is the title of her CREATE! Micro-Grant project. Her Anishinaabemowin name translates to English as “Night Sky Woman,” and the night sky is the central theme of her creation.
“By making myself the center theme of the medallion, working on it was good medicine for myself when I was having real-life struggles as a result of COVID-19,” Bailey said. “Truly, my creative process centered around how I felt I needed to heal and that others most likely need to heal too, which I hope can be felt through the hug of the Night Sky Woman on the medallion.”
Besides Night Sky Woman, Bailey explained all the other symbols she used on the medallion: “The color choices of the sky are my spirit colors that coincide with my name. The mukwa (bear) print in the sky represent my dodem (clan). The dibiki-giizis (moon) being that of the night I was born. The string that looks like paper dolls are a never-ending circle of connection between people. The four colors, black, red, yellow, and white, also represent the colors of the medicine wheel. The seven stars in the night sky represent the seven generations that are often talked about in Anishinaabe cultures. The wiigiwams (small homes) represent themselves and the connection of community and family. The fires represent warmth, love, and comfort. The bone beads from my grandfather making up the lanyard and the beads used throughout the medallion tie the generations of my family together.”
“Through this piece, I felt as if I hugged a younger version of myself who was called slurs in middle school for being too white or too Native.”
When Bailey finished the project, she also noticed symbolic details that were unintentionally included.
“I believe that the unintentional choices that artists make are so often the choices that make the piece most memorable for them,” she said.
This project has inspired Bailey to create more and says her dream project is to make full regalia for herself.
“It is my biggest and most hopeful dream,” she said, “to be able to enter a powwow arena to the beat of a drum and to tell my story through beadwork, leatherwork, love, and all of the hard work that go into making pieces for regalia.”
Bailey said she hopes that people who view her project find a sense of healing and that they see the overwhelming positivity within Indigenous communities and cultures.
“The one takeaway that I hope others see is simply ‘healing,’” she said. “Through this piece, I felt as if I hugged a younger version of myself who was called slurs in middle school for being too white or too Native. I told her that we have an identity and nothing, not a government number or a neighbor, would be able to tell us who we are. I want viewers to feel as if the Night Sky Woman is embracing them next to the warm, soft glow of hot embers and beside the slow-flowing river.”