A learning quest leads to story, artistry and resilience

Human and Social Development

- Kate Hildebrandt

Shawna Bowler graduates this spring with a master's degree in social work.

Shawna Bowler, a proud Métis woman from Winnipeg, and a UVic social work master’s graduate, was a candidate for this year’s Governor General’s gold medal award for her outstanding thesis on Indigenous women’s healing through beading methodology.

Her paper, Stitching Ourselves Back Together: Urban Indigenous Women's Experience of Reconnecting With Identity Through Beadwork, is also a testament to her experiences in reconnecting with her own Métis ancestry.

Recounting her quest, Bowler speaks with genuine amazement at just how far she has come during her studies, and just how big her awakening has been.
In 1997, Bowler was enrolled in computer science at the University of Manitoba. A writing-intensive curricular requirement led Shawna to a Native People of Canada course.

“I learned so much about my people. It made me want to know more. I switched to the Native Studies undergrad program and that learning changed my life.”

Bowler continued to the social work undergraduate program to further her studies in social justice for Indigenous people. She wanted to better understand the lack of connection to family, traditions and culture which, as she has observed in her work today, is a loss that is difficult to mend.

Gifts of connection, and amending uncertainties

“Where do my ancestors come from?” she asks. “I still don’t know all the answers.”

Bowler’s parents split up before she was a year old. To this day, she doesn’t know anyone from her father’s side of her family—but she does know that her dad was from Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation in Saskatchewan. She, too, is registered there, but had never visited until she began her MSW research thesis with UVic in 2019.

Interestingly, this was not the point of inspiration that led to her interest in beading.

“Somehow I got it in my head that I was going to make a pair of moccasins,” she explains. “I looked on the internet, read books, talked to people about the process and I learned that it is the beadwork that makes the moccasins unique. So I taught myself. No one showed me.”

It didn’t take long for her to see she was good at this. It was 2014, one year prior to her starting her MSW program at UVic. “I was 38 years old,” she shrugs and smiles.  

“I gave the moccasins to my grandmother for her 80th birthday.” The beadwork features the classic five petal flower. Gifting, she explains, is the centrepiece to her studies on beading.

Linking people with research methodology

Two years later, Bowler was knee-deep on her research paper and wanting to give back to the participants who shared their knowledge. She decided to make medicine bags with the four-petal flower beadwork.

“This became the centerpiece of my research methodology. It is stitched into that beadwork. Gifting the medicine bags and my story created that safe, supportive space for the participants to share their own story though their own beadwork.”

Bowler explains her approach to beadwork and how it invites an opening up to reciprocal sharing. “The beadwork was meant to be a prompt for making something with someone else in mind.” For those who go through life not knowing their own story or culture, says Bowler, gifting in this way can heal.

It was really important to me to learn about Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing and to assert Indigenous ways of doing social work and healing. Engaging in this research allowed me to accomplish some of this and further my own process of decolonization and healing.

Shawna Bowler, UVic class of 2021

As Shawna noted in her paper, “beading methodology decolonizes and Indigenizes the research approach because colonized knowledges cannot be dismantled with colonial methodologies.”

Balancing studies and a career

During Bowler’s four years of studies with UVic, she has worked full-time in social work.

“I’ve spent the last nine years working as a victim’s advocate in domestic violence and crime, where the majority of people who need my support are Indigenous women. I help explain the legal system to them in plain language. I help them find their voice and share their story as testimony to the court.”

Social work is a high-volume, high-stress profession, she explains, and at times it’s traumatic. But there’s also something about the work that keeps her engaged.

“I see women come to terms with their own resiliency. What keeps me going is bearing witness in my work with those few women who are willing to press charges. It’s their resiliency that keeps me going.”

The practice of resilience is what Indigenous women do well, she says. “It’s where our strengths lie. It’s a powerful thing to see when people decide to change their lives. I like being part of that change.”

Even so, Bowler can sense change is afoot for her as education and research have revealed another sector where the need for resilience is just as great, if not more so.

“I want to be involved in supporting and educating the next generation of social workers,” she says. “I realize now that I’ve done that all my life—supported other women to improve their lives.”

For now, with her master’s studies complete and pleased with her academic standing, Bowler is content to not make rapid decisions about her future. She is certain of one thing; that beadwork will enable her in sharing knowledge.

“I have strong ideas around gifting,” she explains. “When I present a gift of beadwork to someone, I am giving away a part of myself. It is knowledge. It is story. It is a part of me I am giving away.”

As with learning and sharing knowledge, she says, “beadwork is medicine.”

And Grandma is still wearing those beautiful moccasins.

A pair of moccasins made by Shawna Bowler


See more of Shawna Bowler’s beadwork on Instagram at @Shawnas_Beadbox.

An extensive beadwork exhibit and information series is also taking place at the UVic Legacies Art Gallery on Yates and Broad Street in Downtown Victoria.



In this story

Keywords: student life, convocation, indigenous, social work

People: Shawna Bowler

Publication: The Ring

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