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When Junie Powell's beloved aunt, Wyonne Woolf, died several years ago, Powell made a set of pallbearer ribbons to commemorate her.
Powell said this set of ribbons marked "the beginning (of) hundreds more to come."
Powell, 62, is a member of the Little Shell Tribe but was born and raised in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation. She learned to bead in high school and has since started her own business, Powell Cree-Ayetions, where she makes custom beadwork, including coin purses, dream catchers, belt buckles, earrings, stethoscopes, caps, cell phone holders, crosses, and of course, pallbearer ribbons.
Powell's pallbearer ribbons feature a photo of an individual who has passed, encircled with beadwork or rhinestones. Families can request a certain number of ribbons and specific colors. Powell said she initially made six to ten ribbons, but as time went on, families began requesting more. Powell's daughters, Jenna and Jerci, help make the ribbons, and a set of ribbons can take anywhere from a few hours to a day to complete.
With each loss, families circulate photos of Powell's ribbons on Facebook pages, expressing gratitude for her work. The posts prompt prayers, condolences and an outpouring of memories.
As COVID-19 cases surge, Powell said she "has been extremely busy."
A result of long-term disinvestment and oppression, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Indigenous people nationwide. A recent report revealed that COVID-19 was the leading cause of death among Native Americans in Montana in 2020, and as of Wednesday, the Blackfeet Nation reported it has lost 56 community members to the virus.
"Lately, it has been emotionally trying due to the amount of death in our community. We are part of a small community that knows each other and their families," Powell wrote in an email to the Tribune. "The hardest projects for me are the infant deaths or children. At times, it does become difficult."
Powell recently made ribbons to honor Arden Pepion, a three-year-old child who has been missing from the Blackfeet Reservation since April.
In the last year, the Blackfeet Nation has lost Joe Sam Scabby Robe, a champion grass dancer, Brendon Galbreath, a bright student, Ramona DesRosier, a trailblazing matriarch, and Chief Earl Old Person, who tirelessly advocated for Indigenous people, to name a few.
To honor Old Person, Powell made 215 ribbons; of those, 40 were fully beaded and 175 featured rhinestones. (Powell is donating the money from those ribbons to the Earl Old Person Memorial Scholarship fund.)
Powell said the pallbearer ribbons are meant to "honor and cherish our loved ones."
"The ribbons serve as a precious and priceless keepsake or gift for families to hold onto for years to come," she said. "I firmly believe that everyone values our ribbons differently. We try to capture the lifestyle or interests of each individual."
If you are interested in learning more about Powell Cree-Ayetions, contact Junie Powell on Facebook messenger.
This week in the news ...
Trailblazer Ramona DesRosier dies at 97
Indian Family Health Clinic welcomes a psychiatric nurse
Blackfeet Nation releases updated COVID-19 guidance
The Tribune is ending its Saturday print delivery
Indigenous Communities Reporter, firstname.lastname@example.org
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This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Meet Junie Powell