Who do you belong to?

Serena Steel

Who do you belong to?
Beadwork on melton wool, 27 x 18 inches

The Responsibility of Belonging

This work is a personal exploration of what it means to belong to a people, a place, and a community. The phrase “Who do you belong to?” stems from a handful of conversations I had in my youth. When I would meet a new person at a community event, usually an elder, they would look at me and ask who I belonged to. In English this wording sounds possessive, but in the context of our shared Indigenous culture I understood what they really meant. They did not want to know who owned me, they wanted to know who my parents and grandparents were, and where I came from. Even though they were meeting me for the first time they were trying to seek a hidden connection that we may have already tied us together.

This question drove my exploration of what it means to belong, and the inherent responsibility that comes with it. Belonging to a place is not the same as being from there. Belonging to a community is not the same as sharing a neighbourhood. Knowing who we belong to connects us to each other in ways that otherwise might go unnoticed.

Intention & Materiality

The portraits in this piece from left to right are my grandma (Pearl), my mom (Leeann), and my pepere (Don). These are the people in my life who I feel I belong to the most.

Each portrait is beaded onto melton wool. The process of this means that beads were often added or tacked down one at a time. This was an incredibly time consuming and labourious task, and took over 100 hours to complete.

I chose these materials because beadwork lends itself to the practice of slowing down and being intentional with my work. It asks me to listen to my body and the materials. When my fingers ache or my thread begins to tangle I know it is time to rest. Beadwork cannot be rushed, it will tell you if it doesn’t want to be worked on.

This intentionality is important to my work because in Indigenous beliefs we are taught that our energy gets stitched into our work, and it is important for us to only put forward good intentions so that the viewer or receiver can welcome it into their lives.

Who do you belong to?: A Brief Remembering



Who do you belong to?

I belong to my mom and my dad (Leeann and William). But one more than the other, because one has been here more actively than the other. I know one of them so well I finish their sentences, and the other I am just beginning to know again. I am lucky to belong here.

I belong to my grandma and pepere (Pearl and Don). Equally, but in different ways. I go for drives with one and I go fishing with the other. They buy me honey and make sure it’s locally sourced. They say I love them in my own granddaughter way. Belonging here is warm.

I belong to Simpcw (45 minutes North of Kamloops, BC). It is the band I am enrolled in, but more importantly the community I am a member of. I grew up there, I give and I take from the people around me. We share a home and we share each other. We belong, together.

I belong to Secwepemcúl’ecw (the territory of my people). It is the land that holds my feet, the earth that grows our food and medicine, the water that flows through the river. I am grateful to belong here.

I belong to my people and the land that I come from. I am responsible to those I belong to, and this responsibility is not a burden but rather an opportunity to hold more than myself in my body and spirit. It is powerful to belong.



Family Tree

I have a very large family but I do not have a family tree. When I was young I went to the same daycare as my cousin Chale. We were born 7 months apart but that wasn’t enough to stop us from sticking together like a burr to a pair of pants. Our moms were best friends (and cousins as well) and were pregnant with us at the same time. One day the daycare employees heard Chale calling me his sister, he wouldn’t budge on that fact. We were siblings then and we still are today. When my mom came to pick me up this sparked a very confused conversation from a staff member. 

Chale said that Serena is his sister… but isn’t Shannon his mom…? And Serena is your daughter… So does that mean they have the same dad…?

She asked in shock, insinuating both our mothers got knocked up by the same man around the same time. My mom still laughs about that to this day. 

Chale is my brother the same way that Leon is my uncle. They’re not but they are. It’s a weird phenomenon to explain. 

So you just call him your brother… but he’s really your cousin?

Yes, but no. He IS my brother. He’s not… but he is. 

I have a large family but I do not have a family tree. How do you make a family tree of cousins who are brothers and uncles who are not my mothers brother? Family doesn’t make sense when you have to fit it into a tree. 

Gotta go to school or I’ll get dumb!

My xpé7e is 92 years old. Ever since I was a kid he would ask how I was doing in school, or if I had a job he would ask if I was working hard. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever known, he doesn’t believe in laziness and has owned several houses in his lifetime. Every time I talk to him I tell him not to worry about me because I am working hard and getting smart at school. He laughs and tells me that he is busy getting smart at school too! He has been helping the cultural team teach language lessons for a few years now, he’s one of the last fluent speakers in our community. 

I go to school every week. I gotta go to school or else I’m gonna get dumb! 

We laugh together. 

I think this year is going to be my last. I’m too old and they learn too slow. They don’t understand how to learn the language because they only speak it once a week. That’s not how you learn.

We laugh again. He’s blunt in the way that only elders can afford to be. 

I often feel guilty because I’m not trying to learn my language. My language belongs on my tongue and in my throat, but when I try to speak these noises that are foreign to my anatomy my mouth gets tired and my throat gets sore. These sounds don’t exist in english, and english is the only language I live in. I don’t live at home. I don’t have people to talk to. I can introduce myself and count to ten. I can name a handful of colours and animals. But I’m not learning. How much can you learn when you’re 419 km away from the nearest speaker? I suppose that means I’m just getting dumb, but maybe that’s okay because my xpé7e is ready to get dumb too.



Dirty Carrots

A few years ago I spent the summer living back in my home community. I spent a lot of time walking through the community trails with my cousin Tiff. We would walk and she would identify plants she knew and tell me what they were used for. We collected bright green lichen so she could practice making dye out of it, and we laughed as we tried to figure out the familiar taste of the plant we had picked. 

It tastes kind of like a vegetable?

Yes! It totally does. Kind of like…

A carrot?

Yeah, but like a dirty carrot! 

We laughed at the accuracy of that description. We laughed a lot while we were out on the land. We laughed and talked and existed in silence while we picked chamomile for tea, and poked at sap that we thought would make a good salve. I am grateful for the land that allows me to laugh with my whole lung capacity, and for the people that exist in that space with me. Thank you Tiff. 


My xpé7e has been making jam and canning fruit for as long as I can remember. I used to always argue with my dad because he would say that Smucker’s jam was the best there was, but I knew he was wrong because we had a cupboard full of my xpé7e’s jam, and nothing was better than that. Every time I visit my xpé7e he sends me home with a flat of jam, so when I say we have a linen closet full of canning I am not exaggerating. 

One year we went out berrypicking with a bunch of community members and elders. My xpé7e was so happy to be out picking, so we spent the better part of a day out finding the best patches. I remember peering into a tree and seeing the tiniest nest I’ve ever seen. The eggs were smaller than a toonie. It belonged to a hummingbird. It was a good sign, I was sure of it. 

. . .

My mom came up to me and asked if I had seen xpé7e recently. I hadn’t. We asked around and nobody had seen him for quite a while. I knew my mom was trying to stay calm for me, but I could see in her eyes that she was worried.

What if he tripped and fell somewhere? We are so far up the mountain.

We walked together calling his name. 




I’m not sure how long we looked before my mom’s phone rang. She made a face and I stood frozen awaiting the news. 

Who is it?

It’s xpé7e.


She answered. It was xpé7e. He didn’t have a cell phone but he did have a home phone.

Hello? What are you doing? How did you get home? We are all looking for you. We thought you got hurt.

He had lost our group and didn’t know how to get back to us, so he just started walking home. He knows the mountain like the back of his hand, so he just decided to head back by himself. One of the maintenance men passed him on his walk, so he hitched a ride the rest of the way with them. He was okay. He just walked home. 

Once we let everyone know he was safe and told them what happened, we all laughed. 

Only Bill would walk all the way back home from berrypicking.

I looked at my berry stained hands and picked up my ice cream bucket full of the day’s labour to load into the vehicle. 

He sure is a berrypicker if I’ve ever met one.



Beading as prayer. Beading as medicine. 

When I learned how to bead I was taught that beading should be only done when you are in a good headspace. This is because the energy that you are holding in your body is stitched into the fabric of the piece you are working on. The wearer feels the energy you put into the piece, and as makers we want the receiver to feel good when they use our work. 

I’ve never been one for prayer, I don’t really believe in a god or a higher power, but I believe in the energy we give and receive from each other. When I put on a pair of earrings from another beader I feel the time and energy they have spent with the piece. It connects us and makes us less alone. Beading is medicine because we choose it to be, with intention and care.

When We Can’t Bead Together

I began beading in December of 2019. This was in the middle of COVID and I was renting a room in a house full of rotating strangers because I was attending school in the city. I sat on my little couch in my little room hunched over my coffee table learning how to bead. When I finished a piece I would wait for the 20 minutes of sun that would shine through the clouds and I would jump up, run outside, and take a few good photos of my work before the clouds rolled back in. I edited them, cropped them, and made sure they were Insta-worthy. Before I posted them I would send those photos to my mom because she always complained that I didn’t show her enough of my work.

. . .

When I was young my mom taught me how to make brick stitch fringe earrings. And before that she taught me how to make beaded spiders out of wire. I grew up asking her if I could do craft nights with my friends, following her to her sewing group, and eventually helping her teach workshops to classes at the elementary school. I remember rummaging around the basement and digging in all of her craft bins, sourcing supplies for whatever project I wanted to work on that day. She would yell down the stairs at me.



What are you doing?


What did you find this time?

I would sheepishly come up the stairs with whatever supplies I had in my hands and ask if it was okay to use. She usually said yes, even if it was special or expensive or she had a different project in mind for it. Moms are like that.

Creating became synonymous with community and togetherness. It was always more fun that way anyways. I didn’t understand the difference between art and craft until I started university. I didn’t know that they were two different worlds, I thought all creation was equal. We don’t talk a lot about craft within these walls, so it took me two and a half years to even think about integrating it into my practice. Even now when people ask what mediums I work in I have to practice biting my tongue from saying:

Ceramics. And beadwork in my own personal practice, but all I make is earrings so it’s not really art.

I am going to officially have a Bachelor of Fine Arts this spring, but I miss the community of craft. I miss sitting around a table scattered with beads and thread and fabric scraps. I miss laughing so hard my cheeks hurt and my tummy aches. Fine art hasn’t offered me that. I have spent 3 and a half years in white walls and silent critiques. I understand a lot of theory and am grateful for the knowledge I’ve gained and the people I have met, but I ache for something a tad less serious. I’m not trying to be included in history books or shown at the MOMA, I just want to create with friends and family again.

. . .

I recently finished a new pair of earrings. I didn’t rush outside to take Instagram-worthy photos or set up my backdrop. I took photos on my messy desk and I sent those photos to my mom because I miss creating with her, and sometimes when I send photos of what I’m working on she sends photos back of her current projects. So until we can sit at the same table and create together again, we send photos and laugh into voice messages. This is what we do when we can’t bead together.


(thank you)

Cookies and Jam

Ever since I was young my mom would use the phrase “cookies and jam” instead of saying “thank you”. For one reason or another I never really questioned it and quickly accepted it as being synonymous with gratitude. I thought that it was just one of those sayings I had never heard before. She has been saying “cookies and jam” to me for years, my whole life practically. Occasionally I would try to figure out the mental connection between these two objects but I just couldn’t piece together how they were related beyond both of them being edible.

A few years ago my mom said it again. Maybe it was after I bought her coffee, or refilled her water. Maybe I cooked dinner that night or tidied up the house. I’m not sure, but she said it and it finally dawned on me. Cookies and jam sounds like kukwstsétsemc, the word for thank you in our language. I remember telling her my sudden realization and she laughed.

You didn’t know that’s what I meant? Cookies and jam! Kukwstsétsemc!

We laughed. I’ve never laughed with anyone the same way I laugh with my mom.

. . .

So to you, reader, I just want to say cookies and jam for being with me, right here, right now. And I urge you to think about who it is that you belong to.



Serena Steel

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Serena Steel is a Secwepemc artist who was born in Barriere, BC. She currently works within the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. In 2022 Serena will complete her BFA at Emily Carr University of Art and Design with a major in Critical and Cultural Practice and a minor in Social Practice and Community Engagement.

Her interdisciplinary work is focused through Indigenous material practice and takes the form of beadwork and sculpture. Serena reframes ideas of identity by centering the values of community, reciprocity, and belonging. Serena’s recent work is concerned with slowing down and creating with good intentions.

Serena’s has been invited to participate in the upcoming “Beaded Nostalgia” exhibition at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.

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