Clothing design is a common aspect across all cultures, but fashion varies based on the season, climate, the geography and the latitude. Depending on where you are, fashion relates to land in this way. For Indigenous communities, design is unique to individual nations and territories. Clothing needs to be functional, and if you’re on the east coast in Mi’kmaw territory, you’re going to have different needs than if you’re Woods Cree in northern Alberta, or if you’re Nu-chal-nulth on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Traditionally, based on where you are, there would be access to different mediums including leather, wool, beads, feathers and bone. But now with globalization and international trade, designers have access to all sorts of different materials.
Now, we are seeing clothing and fashion design intersect in interesting ways with Indigenous fashion design. We have Haida artist Dorothy Grant designing since 1988, and Tahltan artist Alano Edzerza’s Native American Apparel which has been around since 2007 and ships internationally.
Like many other forms of Indigenous artist, fashion is linked to Indigenous identity and cultural expression. But the intersection between traditional design and modern design is not as clear cut as it may seem. What designs are appropriate to wear on the runway, and what should stay with your community? What is the cultural property of communities and can be reproduced and distributed to the masses? How do we do this in a good way?
Designs place you somewhere. For myself, Tsimshian formline identifies me and where I’m from. Tsimshian ayaawx, our Tsimshain law, outlines specific protocol around what designs you can wear, and which you cannot wear. According to our ayaawx, Tsimshian people can only wear the crest designs you are born into or have the rights to wear. You wouldn’t wear a crest design that isn’t representative of your own crest, unless you ensure you’ve followed the proper process and protocols to wear such a design. This protocol is reflected in our formal institutions such as our button blanket designs and our regalia, but now is also being reflected in modern fashion, like jackets, vests, handbags, shoes, shirts and jewelry. But again, these laws are culturally specific to where I’m from.
Right now as we do this podcast, I’m wearing a copper shield necklace and copper earrings, that’s a material of cultural significance to many coastal First Nations communities. A copper shield, or a hayetsk we call it in Sm’algyax, is not a pan-Indigenous symbol, but has very specific and meaningful protocols attached to this symbol in Tsimshian culture.
Now, more than ever, we have non-native people who are buying First Nations designs. There are companies like Native Northwest that are partnering with coastal First Nations artists, to make aspects of Native culture more accessible for everyday use, to a large consumer base. Up north, jewelery is very popular among non-Indigenous peoples.
In wearing aspects of Indigenous culture as symbols, I think it’s interesting to think of the ways we share our culture with other cultures. Indigenous artists need to make a living, which means selling their work to buyers. In chatting with some of the Indigenous artists selling their beadwork at the Kanata Festival, this is the reality for artists.
Now I’d like to invite our two guests to join the discussion about Indigenous fashion, I’m speaking with Joleen Mitton, Ellena Neel, and Christine Spinde