PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- When she was 7 years old, Neegonee Brunner’s great-aunt Laura Fineday taught her to bead and follow the traditions of the Anishinaabeg culture.
From that first project to the intricate pieces of art she creates today, beading has been a source of peace in an often troubled world.
A member of the White Earth Nation, Brunner grew up in the Pine Point community near Ponsford, about 20 miles from Park Rapids.
Fineday, who was also fluent in the Ojibwe language, wanted to pass on the tradition and art of beading to her great-niece.
“The first beading project she taught me was to do loom work,” Brunner said. “There were two pieces of board with a thread wrapped around it a bunch of times. I was able to bead my full name on it in silver and orange so it looked like a belt. I remember how proud I felt. Even though I don’t have it, I remember it as the most beautiful thing in the world.”
That project inspired her to learn more about beading from her father, Albert Brunner, who is known in the Pine Point community as Spunky. In addition to beading, he also makes flutes, canes and pipes. “Some of his work is in a museum,” she said. “He can carve anything out of anything.”
Brunner learned how to make earrings with porcupine quills. “When I was 10, I was making them with my dad and selling them at a little gift shop in Bemidji that looked like a teepee,” she said. “I remember staying up most of the night and drinking Mountain Dew and beading to get a bunch ready to sell.”
She used the money she made in sales to buy more beading supplies and make more earrings.
After moving down to the Twin Cities, Brunner said she drifted away from beading for many years.
“I kind of lost all of that,” she said. “But when I came back to live here at Pine Point out in the woods, I needed a hobby so I started collecting beads.”
Brunner explained that when somebody gifts her with beads, it is a spiritual connection. “I sleep with my beads on my pillow before I do any beadwork,” she said.
She doesn’t bead from a pattern or pre-plan her work. “The colors come to me,” she said. “If someone asked me to bead a pair of earrings I couldn’t put the colors together for the life of me. But when I see the colors in my head, then I start creating.”
Because her beads and her creations are so much a part of who she is, Brunner said she seldom sells them. “I gift them instead of charging for them,” she said.
Brunner said beading is more than a craft to her, it is a spiritual practice. “I have to feel it in my heart to bead,” she said.
She said people often give her beads and she also purchases some through Northland Visions in the Twin Cities, a Native American owned business.
“My beads are spiritual to me,” she said. “I love looking at them. I love having them near.”
She said beading helps her feel peaceful and that beading can do the same for others.
“During the pandemic, beading is one way to feel calmer and deal with stress,” she said.
Brunner has passed on the art of beading to her two oldest daughters. Teresita is 21 and Francisca is 9.
“I love it when we bead together,” she said. “But one thing that is really funny is that I can’t bead unless my whole house is spotless. I think it is a spiritual thing, where I feel really good and have that positive energy. When I bead, I get into a solitary situation. I’m totally relaxed and I’m totally focused. I don’t put anything else in my mind. It’s a release.”
Recently, Francisca started her own little beading business.
“She wanted a Barbie dream house that was over $200,” Brunner said. “I bought her some beads and told her to make the money by selling earrings for $10 or $15 a pair. She made over $300 by selling them to Honor the Earth, at Pine Point School, craft fairs, powwows and raffles.”
Brunner said beading is easy enough for children to learn and only requires a few supplies. “You will need beading thread, beads and needles,” she said. “You can start with daisy chains and string. YouTube has every kind of video to make anything. Just search for Native American beadwork."
Beads come in a wide variety of prices, with crystals being one of the more expensive. She said she doesn’t follow patterns. “I sometimes look online at patterns, but I don’t copy them,” she said. “I find a way to change it up by adding something on the bottom like porcupine quills. People can use their imagination to create their own patterns and designs, even if they are just learning.”
With a little practice, anyone can make a pair of earrings in less than five minutes. “It’s fun for kids,” she said. “I’ve also taught some of the kids in my classes at Pine Point School to bead. They are so excited when they bring home little bead packs and come back to school to show me their earrings. During the pandemic, we sent home bead packs with everything they needed provided by the University of Minnesota 4-H program.”
Anyone who wants to learn more about beading can contact Brunner at 612-327-1774.
“I love to teach beading,” she said. “What you get from teaching is an amazing feeling. It feels like you’re sharing a piece of the positive part of you with somebody else. When I see how much they appreciate it and how excited they are, it makes my whole day.”