Jeff Green | Mar 19, 2009
Back to HomeFeature Article - March 19, 2009 Local artist inspired by his native heritageby Julie Druker
Native artist Mitchell Shewell with a "swing bustle" he made
A deep interest and involvement in his native roots and ancestry inspire the art and craft of Mitchell Shewell, who belongs to the Ardock Algonquin First Nation. Shewell has been working at his craft for 15 years and is both self-taught and taught by native elders.
His work consists of two types. The first consists of traditional native objects: sweet grass baskets, smudging feathers, traditional buck skin bags, medicine bags, moccasins, vests, beadwork, hand drums, drumsticks, rattles and dream catchers. For these Shewell likes to use traditional materials as much as he can. For example, he prefers to make his dream catchers from red willow and grape vine. “I can use those little gold rings that you can buy but I try not to; I prefer to use traditional materials.” These items range in price from $10 -$500 and are sold at shows and pow wows as well as from Shewell’s home in Sharbot Lake.
The second type of work that Shewell makes is regalia, traditional native costumes worn at celebrations such as pow wows and weddings. He has acquired his skills from elders with whom he has come into contact through his involvement in various native groups and associations.
Shewell has been the Healing Wellness Co-coordinator at the Katarokwi Native friendship Centre in Kingston for five years, the head dancer at the Silver Lake Pow Wow for the last four years and currently sits on the Heads of Family council of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation.
Bustles, head pieces, roaches, chaps and leggings, buck skin shirts, breast plates, shields and feathered fans are all regalia pieces that Shewell makes. He says, “ If I don’t know how to make it I go to the elders and ask them”.
He enthusiastically showed me a "roach", one part of a head piece commonly worn by traditional grass dancers, that he made from porcupine hair and sweet grass. “I drove all the way to Ottawa and picked up an old man at the bus station to learn how to make this” he recalled.
Next, Shewell showed me a “swing bustle”, another traditional piece worn by male dancers on their backs. It resembles a fan and swings as they dance. Made from owl, osprey, turkey and vulture feathers, and deer antlers, it also incorporates a picture of bears made of woven beads. Shewell explained, “Running Wolf showed me how to make bustles and head pieces, almost everything, including the mechanical workings of certain pieces. He was a Lakota Sioux and I met him at the Friendship Centre in Kingston.”
Some of the regalia worn by dancers can weigh upwards of 30 lb. though 50 lb. is not unheard of.
Regalia making brings Shewell a sense of joy, pride and satisfaction. It is not work that Shewell does for financial gain. Payment can take various other forms as Shewell explained. “Regalia making is done from the heart. You do it for members of the community and for the enjoyment of watching someone wear something that you’ve made. You make something for them that they take care of and that you will see handed down to the next generation.”
The topic of regalia is infectious. Shewell’s daughter Cory, who has been dancing at pow wows since she was young, showed me the beaded bib that she wears when she dances, a piece made for her by her mother Allison.
Much more than mere objects, Mitchell Shewell‘s creations are an intrinsic part of his work, life and heritage. Watch for Mitch and his work at the Silver Lake and Ardoch pow wows, and the Verona Festival. Also watch for the sign at his home at 1024 Robert Street in Sharbot Lake. He can be reached at (613) 279-2071.