Every June, Canadians are invited to celebrate the contributions of Indigenous people in Canada by taking part in National Aboriginal History Month events and festivities. Declared in 2009, National Aboriginal History Month is a time to acknowledge the role Indigenous people played in the development of Canada, to honour Indigenous heritage and to celebrate Indigenous cultures. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the strength of present day First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities, and their hopes for the future.
In honour of this celebration of Indigenous communities, Vancouver is set to host its very own Indigenous fashion week, July 26th – July 29th, featuring 32 Canadian designers showcasing seasonal collections, as well as First Nations artists, musicians, and dancers presenting various performances. The event comes at an especially relevant time in Canadian history, the 150th anniversary of confederation; a contentious milestone that has highlighted the embedded colonialism of the Canadian government and its history.
The timely event and no doubt its effort to reclaim Indigenous heritage through means of fashion brings about a question in a larger context. How can fashion stand to preserve the cultural heritage and history of first nations peoples? The answer is a complex one, with issues of appropriation and representation abounding.
Take Dsquared for example. Their Women’s Fall-Winter 2015 collection was heavily influenced by indigenous clothing and subsequently came under fire for cultural appropriation. Dubbing their line “Dsquaw”, the term “squaw” coming from the Algonquin words for woman, and featuring looks that juxtaposed british colonial fashion with native inspired garments the brand failed to respectfully collaborate with and represent the first nations people it set out to celebrate. Instead, the collection was regarded as tone deaf, insincere, and exploitative.
Similarly, Victoria’s Secret sent models down the runway sporting native headdresses while Chanel outfitted its Pre-Fall 2014 collection in everything from feather headbands to bejeweled pistols and gold and silver war paint. The problem here, and in all cases of cultural appropriation lies in the appropriators unawareness or indifference to the power dynamics by which they are afforded the privilege to pillage other cultures artefacts and subsequently profit from them. Pairing British colonial fashion with indigenous garments is not kitschy, it undermines centuries of cultural genocide and abuse that the first nations people were subjected to by the hands of the British empire. Similarly, the irony of a French haute couture take on aboriginal clothing should not be lost on the educated mind.
So how does a brand go about engaging with Indigenous culture in an appropriate way? Vancouver’s Indigenous fashion week is a fantastic start, created by Indigenous designers for Indigenous people, it is a reclamation of agency and visibility whereby the authenticity and cultural heritage of the culture is preserved and celebrated. Similarly, designers are reaching out to work with Indigenous artists in collaborations that increase visibility, strengthen bonds, and celebrate Aboriginal cultures in ways that are productive, not regressive.
Rose Mcmahon is a designer and stylist currently living and working in Toronto, Canada and is the artistic director and couturier of Rightful Owner, her recently developed clothing line which has released two collections, and garnered attention from the likes of Jemima Kirke (HBO’s Girls), Rose Victoria Williams (Reign), Caitlin Stasey (Neighbours) and Courtney Love.
With an art history background and a foundation in sewing and costume design, Rose began her career designing and manufacturing floral headpieces after taking up millinery classes and exploring the craft through trial and error. A few years later she would go on to design and release her first clothing collection Bright Future, which launched last spring. A celebration of optimism and resurrection combining Mexican textiles and a close collaboration with a local Anishnabe-kwe beadwork artist named Mary Magiskan, the line was a material manifestation of hope and vibrancy that sought to transcend social barrier.
“Bright Future was my first collection and it came out of a lot of struggle” Rose muses. “The entire time I worked on that project I held fast to the idea that once this collection was made, the future would be better. It was also a time when the United States was dealing with race issues and police brutality was just becoming known in the Canadian media. I wanted, and I still want, a future of peace and prosperity, where there is understanding of our differences and respect.”
One piece from the collection, in particular, became a manifestation of this wish for future and prosperity, a symbol of a fusing of ideas and cultures through a mutual love of art. A Jacket emblazoned with a hand beaded patch by Mary Magiskan, an Anishnabe-kwe from the Robinson Superior Treaty area near Rose’s hometown. “I am from Thunder Bay, a town in Northern Ontario that couldn’t be more different from the life I live in downtown Toronto now. I wanted to reconnect to that place in my work and out of this came a desire to work with the First Nations beaders in Thunder Bay… Through talking to different women I met the beader Mary Magiskan and she gave me a lot of strength… I believe that she understood that I wanted to connect with her through art. She wrote a statement to go with her beading of the Thunder Bird and I knew that we were on the same path when I read it. Our collaboration together is about understanding each other in a real, true, and deep way. From understanding each other I do believe we can build a more beautiful world. And I hope for that each and every day.”
Mary outlines the cultural significance and history behind her bead-work collaboration in her statement: “My name is Mary Magiskan and I am an Anishnabe-kwe from the Robinson Superior Treaty area. I live on the north shore of Lake Superior in Thunder Bay Ontario, Canada. My spirit name is Ozaawaabinesiikwe, Yellow Thunderbird Woman and I am a member of the Eagle clan. I beaded the yellow Thunderbird embedded by Anishinaabe florals as a contribution to Caitlin’s project, and I entitled it “Resurrection”. The Thunderbird is very sacred to the Ojibwe people and her power is told of in traditional teachings of my region. Because of the sacredness of these teachings I cannot write them down as they are traditionally passed down from generation to generation orally through storytelling and song. However, I can explain “Resurrection” and what it means on a personal level. The Thunderbird in “Resurrection” overall represents new beginnings. The Thunderbird is an interdimensional being who departs during the winter and begins to return to his earthly obligations with the first rumblings in the spring. Thunderbirds resurrect during the summer months and are most active during this time. The Thunderbird channels energy from the spirit world down to the earth, awakening us and healing our spirits. In “Resurrection”, the Thunderbird is embedded by flowers. There is only a short growing season in my region. For only a few precious weeks of spring, flowers bloom and the land becomes very lush. The land resurrects. I encapsulated the Thunderbird by flowers to remind us of the oneness and our connection to the land that we share. Mother Earth sustains us and we cannot live as humans without her. I chose to use the colour yellow for the Thunderbird. On the medicine wheel, the yellow represents the eastern direction, where the sun rises faithfully, dutifully, majestically every single morning. When the sun rises it offers us hope for a new day, for a new beginning, for the opportunity to reconfirm our obligation to live in balance with all of Creation. New beginnings. Resurrection. A bright future. Miigwetch — Thank you. All my relations.” Mary Magiskan – Ozaawaabinesiikwe
In speaking with Mary about the significance of the beadwork in the collaboration she maintains “Beadwork is an art form. But to indigenous people of Canada our beadwork tells our stories. Our beadwork represents our families. Our beadwork preserves our history, our teachings and our culture. It keeps it alive.” The success of Rightful Owner’s collaboration thus lies in the mutual benefit of the cultural exchange and the acknowledgement of the history and purpose of the cultural artifact in question. Rather than drawing inspiration from vague ideas and stereotypes of Indigenous culture completely devoid of context or historical accuracy like Dsquared and Chanel, Rightful Owner treated the Thunderbird jacket as a respectful collaboration based on a mutual understanding of art and optimism. To Mary, the most important part of avoiding appropriation is the acknowledgment. “As long as indigenous art is being portrayed respectfully in fashion then I feel like its an awesome thing. And by respectfully I mean acknowledging the teachings, the spirituality and the importance of both that are fully part of indigenous art, whichever art form that may be.”
Celebrating Indigeneity through fashion is a means of preserving heritage and increasing First Nations visibility within the mainstream. When executed correctly these collaborations serve to meaningfully engage with Indigenous culture beyond the point of aesthetics, restoring agency and economically and artistically benefiting all parties involved. “Our art has a spirit.” Mary proclaims. “This is why in my personal opinion it is so important for mainstream fashion to respect this teaching and acknowledge it, not only for indigenous people and what we each individually represent but for the spirit that is in a piece of art. I’m just so proud of Caitlin and I and our collaboration. It was such a great learning experience for the both of us and just by doing this together we have demonstrated how beautiful the outcome of a partnership and relationship like ours can be between indigenous and non-indigenous people of Canada.”
Disclosure: The author has collaborated with Rose Mcmahon on a past photography shoot.
Cody is a content creator at Glossi Mag.
He is a photography aficionado, theatre school alumni, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.