Pottery in Mi’kma’ki reviving traditions

Posted on June 01, 2021 | By Alexandrea Guye | 0 Comments

The Mi’kmaq tradition of pottery making is given new life through one women’s business in Eskasoni, Cape Breton. The business—Oakleaves, Native Creations—has been run by Nancy Oakley, 51, for the past 25 years. The former photographer who now focuses on pottery making and basket weaving, says her inspiration comes from her culture and the world around her.

The Mi’kmaq and Wampanoag artist said pottery making is a very versatile practice. Everything you feel, the experiences or impressions you have can affect what you create. “All of that comes out in the clay,” she said during an interview.

She began her business after receiving a grant from Ulnooweg, an organization founded in 1986 that provides loans and business services to Indigenous people in Atlantic Canada. Drawing on her Mi’kmaq traditions, and through some help from an archaeologist, she is reviving traditional Mi’kmaq pottery with every piece she makes.

First firing


Her pottery is made from clay in her backyard that’s mixed with mussel shells from the nearby shores as a temper. Oakley uses a technique called burnishing to smooth out pieces to give them a glossy sheen. Burnishing involves rubbing a smooth and hard object along the surface of a dry pot, usually with a non-water lubricant. She uses river stones to create this effect.

Burnishing takes place before the first ‘firing’, when the clay will be heated to extreme temperatures for the first time. Instead of a kiln she uses an open pit fire to warm up the pieces. “It takes about all day. I warm the pots around the fire for a good five, six hours, just turning them,” said Oakley.

Once the pieces are dried at this stage, she puts them in the fire with water in the bowls, which keeps them from heating too quickly and cracking.


Around the rims of the finished bowls or as a handle for a lid, she adds sweetgrass. Sweetgrass is a medicine used by many Indigenous cultures in prayer and cleansing practices.

Oakley said when people share their appreciation for her work, she still gets emotional. “You give a piece of yourself every time you make something and then when it connects with someone else, it’s just powerful,” she said.

Rosemary Curry, owner of Red Sky Gallery in Antigonish said she knew she wanted Oakley’s works to be in her gallery before it had even opened in 2018. “I felt like her stuff had such a calm, beautiful style. There’s something almost meditative I find about her pieces,” said Curry in an interview. Oakley’s products have been in her store ever since.

Curry said there has been a shift in consciousness around supporting artists and specifically in seeking out First Nations artists in the province. “People are drawn to them when I have them here and are always curious about it,” said Curry.

Each week, we’ll focus on a different regional manufacturer, highlighting some of the exceptional products made right here in Atlantic Canada. If you know of an Atlantic Canada Made product that we should feature, let us know. Email [email protected]

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