A boxy shed in the shade of a house in Sheshatshiu pales in comparison to the size of the houses and woods surrounding it.
Beyond its dismissible exterior, is a wooden booth showcasing a vibrant collection of tea dolls; two in particular are sewed in the image of a pregnant mother and a father who sit embracing each other.
Tea dolls are an Innu craft known to have been practiced since before 1880.
Dolls are sewn out of an array of fabrics and animal hides to resemble a person wearing traditional Innu garb. Usually stuffed with tea leaves, children would carry the tea dolls when travelling. As children played with the dolls, they also learned their responsibilities of moving loads during travel.
Jeannie Nuna is the daughter of Angela Andrew — an Innu artist whose handmade tea dolls, commitment to preserving Innu traditions and engaging youth have taken her around the world, as well as securing her a profile in Newfoundland and Labrador’s school social studies curriculum.
Andrew died in February, at the age of 72, but her memory will live on through Nuna’s own craft and souvenir shop, called The Trading Post, in the boxy shed behind the house on 59 MacKenzie Dr., in Sheshatshiu.
Nuna converted the 10'x12' shed behind her house into the shop and started making tea dolls just last month.
She said her mother sometimes had nowhere to sell her wares near home, although, they were a known high-quality, high-price collectible item.
Near Andrew’s passing was when Nuna felt the fire in her belly.
“She got really sick fast,” Nuna said. “She died in February. A month later, I thought about opening up my craft shop.”
In Nuna’s craft shop, she offers her own handmade tea dolls, beadwork — which is another indigenous craft, traditional hats and mittens that Innu would have worn years ago, plus wall hangings.
She plans to display other local crafters at The Trading Post, but, all this took a long time to get started.
“I had to do a little bit of research, and getting to know the craft people around here,” she said. “There are a lot of young people who are … making really nice crafts. I want to buy their crafts and re-sell it.”
Most importantly, she had to teach herself how to sew, because she never had designs to carry on her mother's tradition.
“At first, I told my mom when she was still healthy, maybe two years ago … I’m not going to make tea dolls because they are not selling,” Nuna said. “When she died, it made me realize I needed her memory and I needed to keep it alive.”
Nuna started making tea dolls only a month ago. For only teaching herself how to sew in the following months, it was a process that she got a handle on fast.
She credits her mother for that.
“As I grew up, I watched my mom making the tea dolls. As I got older and went to live on my own with my family, I went to visit her and watched her sew while we chatted and talked,” Nuna recalled.
“I didn’t realize it until she died that she was teaching me her culture. She didn’t say ‘look at me’ or ‘try and learn how to do this.’ We just grew up watching her the whole time.”
Victoria Elson, Nuna’s daughter, is proud of her mother’s store and hopes she can continue The Trading Post as a family tradition and pass it onto her children.
“My grandmother would be proud of my mom for taking traditional activity and making it her own style,” Elson said.
“I’m very proud of her opening up the craft store and keeping my grandmother’s memory alive that way.”
Elson explained that individuals have their own style of making tea dolls, and that Nuna’s and Andrew’s styles vary.
“I try to make the faces exactly like hers, but they never turn out like hers,” Nuna said. “I guess everybody is different that way.”
“When she died, it made me realize I needed her memory and I needed to keep it alive.” — Jeanni Nuna
Nuna tends to stick to tradition, but is finding more ways to do things and branches out a bit more than what Andrew’s did.
The community is welcoming the craft store and Nuna has already sold several traditional hats.
“I see a lot of young people starting to wear it and I am very proud of them,” Nuna said. “Someone asked me to make a small red and black traditional hat for her girl. When she tried it on, she was very proud to wear it.”
Although the craft store was not in Nuna’s vision 10 years ago, she hopes 10 years from now it will be something well-known.
“I hope it grows. I hope more tourists come to our small community and look me up,” Nuna said.
The Trading Post is located at 59 MacKenzie Dr., in Sheshatshiu, NL, and is open from 3-9 p.m. daily and anyone interested in Nuna's crafts can contact her at 709-897-4948.