Meet the Indigenous Artist Crafting Brilliant Pride-Themed Jewelry
QueerKwe Designs honors LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit identities.
Walking into any store during Pride Month often means being greeted by a sea of rainbow-colored packaging on everything from cookies to sunscreen to card games. Rainbow colors seem ubiquitous in June—which can make it easy to look past the meaning behind them. For Becca Lynn, the Petoskey, Michigan-based Anishinaabe artist who crafts vibrant, Pride-themed beaded jewelry at QueerKwe Designs, those same rainbow colors are intensely personal.
“With every earring I sell, I write [the customer] a little note,” Lynn, 26, tells Thrillist. “I tell them that I hope they wear my pieces with pride, and to remember the strength and intentions put into each piece. It’s more than just jewelry. I make them with my hands. I use it to help myself heal, and to help my community heal, and to help Indian country in general to heal.”
Lynn was born and raised in a small town in Northern Michigan, and is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (part of the Three Fires Confederacy, which also includes the Ojibwe and Potawatomi), a tribal nation that’s been in the Great Lakes region long before the existence of the United States. “The Odawa had extensive trade routes throughout North America,” they said. “Our community has survived by selling our art for centuries. I come from a long line of beaders. This work is both about creating representation and honoring a family legacy.”
"It’s more than just jewelry. I use it to help myself heal, and to help my community heal, and to help Indian country in general to heal.”
The Odawa tribe does not lack artistic talent: painting, carving, wood-burning, appliqué, and quillwork (the use of porcupine quills in artwork) are practiced by members of the community. Despite their current knack for beadwork, things weren’t always trending that way for Lynn, who recalls not particularly loving the art form growing up.
“You have to sit still and be able to focus on very tiny beads, and I was all over the place as a kid,” Lynn says laughing, also noting that they played multiple sports, including on tribal basketball teams that would scrimmage against other tribes. “But I got back into it, and I picked it up so fast. I had so many designs in my head. It helped me connect with my grandmother, who was an excellent beader. She passed away when I was in eighth grade, and it’s been a great time to connect with her through this ancestral craft.”
QueerKwe’s jewelry takes the form of beaded medallions, earrings, and necklaces, some of which use components local to the area, like Petoskey stones. These stones are fossils from coral that existed around 350 million years ago. Recently, Lynn created an intricate set for a wedding that featured the stone as the central piece in a turtle-themed necklace.
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Looking at the varied color palettes used in Lynn’s jewelry and you may notice the colors represent pride for trans, asexual, LGBTQ+, and Two Spirit communities. Two Spirit is a spiritual identity that’s culturally specific—it’s not easily defined outside of the context of the tribal community. “It’s hard to give a definition in English terms because English terms are so binary as-is,” Lynn says. “Two Spirit for me personally means that gender and sexuality are Indigenous. I hold both masculine and feminine roles in my community. My spiritual gifts of empathy, sight, and intuition are because I am Two Spirit. My queerness cannot be separated from my Indigenous identity. My love and attraction are based on who can feed my mind, body, and spirit.”
The feedback Lynn has received on their artwork spans from members of the Odawa to Native people across the country. “I was talking to an elder in my community about my work and the different LGBTQ2+,” Lynn says. “She asked me what asexual meant and I described it to her. She had this moment of realization and said she didn’t know that was an option and that’s how she had always felt.”
Lynn has also been sent messages on social media from other Indigenous LGBTQ+ people (and allies) who express gratitude towards being represented in the jewelry. “Some [parents of young queer and Two Spirit children] have been moved to tears [by my jewelry] because they know how cruel the world can be. But seeing my work at powwows and on social media gives them hope for their kiddos.”
"My queerness cannot be separated from my Indigenous identity. My love and attraction are based on who can feed my mind, body, and spirit.”
Spreading the word about the importance of representation for LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit Indigenous people is paramount for Lynn. “I use QueerKwe Designs to do advocacy work,” they said. “I’ve given lectures on Two Spirit identity at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. I’ve hosted beading workshops. And I’ve helped train organizations here to be more LGBTQ friendly in general.”
Lynn moved back to the Petoskey, Michigan, area after attending U of M on a scholarship. The Odawa community—which legalized gay marriage in 2013—has been receptive to both Lynn and the QueerKwe project. An article in a monthly newsletter distributed to the Odawa community featured Lynn’s jewelry, and they received plenty of positive feedback from the story. “My [younger] closeted self never saw [something like this] as possible, so it’s been amazing to be back here,” they said. Lynn’s family is especially supportive of their artwork, with their mom and aunt even crafting alongside them.
Though QueerKwe Designs began as a project to help Lynn cope with PTSD after participating in the Standing Rock #NoDAPL protests, it’s since turned it into something much greater. “Beadwork helped bring me back into my body and be able to sit with myself and create with my hands,” they said. “I channeled that energy and transformed it into something new, something beautiful, something with meaning. For me, beadwork is medicine. Medicine for myself, medicine for my community.”