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Karen “Kapi” continues craft through work and teaching

By Alyssa Nenemay

Karen “Kapi” (Coffey) is a master in Native American art, specifically beading. A member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, Kapi’s work can be found throughout the world. (Courtesy Photo) Karen “Kapi” (Coffey) is a master in Native American art, specifically beading. A member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, Kapi’s work can be found throughout the world. (Courtesy Photo)

HOT SPRINGS — Karen “Kapi” Coffey was a curious six-year-old who closely watched her grandmother Maggie Adams bead an elaborate medallion necklace. When the necklace was complete, Adams brought her grandchildren to the local trading post and said they could each choose one item.

Taking a slice of cheese, Kapi was alarmed to learn the gifts were the result of her grandmother trading the newly finished necklace. “I really loved that necklace it was so beautiful!” recalled Kapi. “I remember I said: ‘Grandma, can’t we keep it?’ I couldn’t believe we only got a few items for such a beautiful necklace.”

Native American art has been passed through generations in Kapi’s family. Kapi, her mother the late Margaret Kapi, and daughter Naomi Robinson are all bead-workers. “When we work on projects we’ll leave them around so where you end someone else could pick up and continue to work and that’s ok,” said Kapi. (Alyssa Nenemay Photo) Native American art has been passed through generations in Kapi’s family. Kapi, her mother the late Margaret Kapi, and daughter Naomi Robinson are all bead-workers. “When we work on projects we’ll leave them around so where you end someone else could pick up and continue to work and that’s ok,” said Kapi. (Alyssa Nenemay Photo)

Adams confirmed that the trade was final but offered a suggestion. “My grandmother said: ‘we have to trade this necklace but I still have plenty of beads at home. I could teach you how to make your own, just like it,’” said Kapi.

When the duo returned home, Adams taught her granddaughter to bead her own necklace and planted a seed of a lifelong love for crafting traditional artwork. “That was how I learned to bead. I learned from her for so long that she gave her trademark to me, which is a six-cut fringe. I put it on all my moccasins,” said Kapi.

Now in her 70’s, Kapi has crafted a huge assortment of tribal artwork, which can be found throughout the world. She created a medallion for then Senator Hillary Clinton when she visited the Salish Kootenai College campus in 2008 and was featured as a solo exhibit at the Museum of Plains Indians in Browning.

The six-cut fringe is featured in all of Kapi’s work. The signature was passed from Kapi’s instructor, her grandmother Maggie Adams. (Alyssa Nenemay Photo) The six-cut fringe is featured in all of Kapi’s work. The signature was passed from Kapi’s instructor, her grandmother Maggie Adams. (Alyssa Nenemay Photo)

Known for her collection of 225 purses (many of which, she worked on) Kapi is a master carrying on five generations of tradition. “Every time I make a new purse, I say: ‘this is the prettiest one!’” My daughters always say: ‘how could all of them be prettiest one?’” she said.

Recently, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member was contracted to design and create loom beadwork for 300 pairs of reading glasses through the Spokane based company Native Visions. The beadwork will be placed on the spring hinges of the glasses and when finished, they will be distributed to Tribal Health centers throughout the US.

Kapi demonstrates how her beadwork will be placed on the Native Visions reading glasses. Kapi demonstrates how her beadwork will be placed on the Native Visions reading glasses.

Aside from the glasses, Kapi has also been contracted to construct 150 pairs of pint size moccasins for students of the local Head Start program. Kapi has been creating moccasins for the program’s annual powwow for several years and incorporates a new beadwork design each spring. This year’s designs are turtles, which Kapi said represents love.

Artwork being her primary means of income, Kapi has created a system to contract and fill large orders. Reaching out to individuals of low-income families or those who lack trade, Kapi will often use larger orders to create opportunities for people to learn her skills as well as the business.

Amidst her many projects, Kapi is currently constructing and beading over 100 pairs of moccasins for the local Head Start program’s students. Kapi has worked with the program for over 10 years. (Alyssa Nenemay Photo) Amidst her many projects, Kapi is currently constructing and beading over 100 pairs of moccasins for the local Head Start program’s students. Kapi has worked with the program for over 10 years. (Alyssa Nenemay Photo)

“I can’t do it all myself and I know there are a lot of people who want to learn. Learning keeps our culture alive, which is hard work and it helps people learn a trade to provide for themselves. I like to teach and my students become family. As a tribe we help each other,” said Kapi.

Kapi requires that her students commit seven years to learning in order to be considered a master, after which they have permission to use her “six-cut” signature in their work. Kapi said only six students have completed seven years of training and each has their own successful trade to date.

One of Kapi’s students includes her partner Eugene “Buzzy” Heavy Runner. The couple met 14-years ago and spend their time in the peaceful hills of Hot Springs crafting traditional artwork together. “Heavy Runner is a big help. He gets right in there and works on stuff. A lot of times people give us dead animals for our work or he goes out and finds some,” she said.

Eugene "Buzzy" Heavy Runner has been Kapi’s partner in art and life for over 10-years. Kapi taught Heavy Runner several art techniques and the couple work together to fill orders. (Alyssa Nenemay Photo) Eugene “Buzzy" Heavy Runner has been Kapi’s partner in art and life for over 10-years. Kapi taught Heavy Runner several art techniques and the couple work together to fill orders. (Alyssa Nenemay Photo)

Between Heavy Runner and her daughters, Kapi’s home is a constant workstation. “We’re always working together and there’s always projects to work on. When we work on projects we’ll leave them around so where you end someone else could pick and continue to work and that’s ok,” she said.

Kapi said her art skills have afforded her a very eventful life and she is proud to carry on the tradition of beading. She encourages others to learn and offers the following advice: “If you don’t know something don’t be too shy to ask someone smarter than you. Some people will show you and some won’t but you should always ask,” she said.

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