First Nations artists score big with beaded medallions and jersey design for Toronto Maple Leafs

Crystal Kimewon says she worked in an assembly-line style fashion and needed the help of five other women to finish beading medallions for the Toronto Maple Leafs on time. (Submitted by Crystal Kimewon - image credit)
Crystal Kimewon says she worked in an assembly-line style fashion and needed the help of five other women to finish beading medallions for the Toronto Maple Leafs on time. (Submitted by Crystal Kimewon - image credit)

They needed to bead 30 medallions in 30 days for every player of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team — but each medallion takes between 10 and 15 hours to complete.

In a quasi-assembly line fashion, Crystal Kimewon beaded 20 of them herself along with a team of five other women all from Wiikwemikoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island in Ontario.

The Toronto Maple Leafs players sported their customized medallions for Indigenous Celebration Day on Saturday night at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto along with Woodland-style logos on their jerseys during warm-up.

It was the biggest project Kimewon ever co-ordinated.

"It really was an honour to be able to bead these for the team, and an honour to represent our community in this capacity," said Kimewon on Monday.

Submitted by Crystal Kimewon
Submitted by Crystal Kimewon

Back in December, they were approached by organizers from Little NHL, an all-Indigenous youth hockey tournament, to participate in Saturday's Indigenous Celebration Day.

She said Mark Fraser, manager of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Leafs, told her the team wanted the players to understand the magnitude and the significance of the gifts they received.

To ensure cultural protocols were followed, the team reached out and had Elder and Ojibway translator Phyllis Williams-Kimewon provide background on the traditional meaning behind the medallions.

Submitted by Crystal Kimewon
Submitted by Crystal Kimewon

"Beading is our medicine, a medicine which we are sharing with each of you. Also, a symbol of wealth and prosperity," an insert given to the players with their medallion reads.

"We hope that you will wear our beadwork with great honour, the same honour we each held and continue to hold, in being able to bead these medallions for each of you."

Artist's jersey design highlighted

Tyler Tabobondung Rushnell of Wasauksing First Nation, about 180 kilometres north of Toronto, was reeling when he saw the Leafs wear a jersey he designed.

"It was really surreal and breathtaking. It felt like a dream come true," Rushnell said.

"One of the biggest hockey teams promoting the Indigenous people in a good way was really beautiful."

Rushnell, 23, said he wanted to incorporate Indigenous culture and the Woodland-style artwork of the Ojibway people in his work. The thunderbird patch on the jersey shoulder represents strength, he said.

Submitted by Tyler Tabobondung Rushnell
Submitted by Tyler Tabobondung Rushnell

He said he worked as an artist for the past five or six years. His mom was adopted during the Sixties Scoop and he was raised off-reserve in Belleville, Ont.

His art, which was discovered on social media by the Leafs, helps him connect with his roots.

Rushnell said his family, who are major Leaf fans, were proud and ecstatic to see his art during warm-ups on Saturday and being worn by the team's American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, on Sunday.

The jerseys the Toronto Maple Leafs wore on Saturday night will be auctioned off, with the proceeds to be donated to the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press
Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

By Monday night, the bid for the jersey worn and signed by the team's captain Auston Matthews was at $12,000.

For Rushnell, a social media post from Indigenous Tourism Ontario, captured what Saturday's celebrations were about.

"Representation matters and seeing Indigenous cultures and people put in front and centre and celebrated at a national-level major sporting event was life-changing for the children in attendance," the post said.

"We want to inspire and instill pride in those who have been ignored and excluded for far too long."