Written by Tenille K Campbell
I have a confession to make - I’m in love. But before we start the tea, I also must admit that my love is a purse. A handcrafted elk-skin purse, bucket bag style, with fringe that reminds me of the early nineties’, a vibe I can get behind. This is a purse from SheNative, one of the latest in the Gratitude Collection, inspired by traditional roots meeting modern designs. And it is a beauty. Designed by local Indigenous talent Tori-Lynn Wanotch, this is a purse that would meet my needs for something practical and efficient to wear in daily use, but also fashionable enough to wear out on the town. And as much as I can wax poetic about how me and this purse are one, this just bring home a larger issue I’m reminded of as I think about fashion, beauty and Indigenous artistry. I’ve often joked that my talent in traditional Indigenous arts lays in the arena as a buyer. I support my local craftspeople by buying from them, advocating for them, and sharing space with them. I tag and introduce new artists I find all the time on my social media channels because we all understand the need for some beautiful earrings. But there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, and it’s how story connects us all – from artist to artist, product to product.
Beadwork carries stories. Textile patterns carry story. Birchbark patterns carry story. The many ways that Indigenous people have carved and cultivated beauty into our existence – as storytellers, matriarchs, leaders, etc. – have come from a shared space as artists and the passing down of family designs, intergenerational knowledge and keeping space for new interpretations of work. I see this when my friends show me beadwork patterns that have emerged from their grandmother’s sewing kits. I see this when silversmiths highlight stones and patterns that their ancestors also worked with. Our art showcases the survival of our stories, embodied in multiple outlets.
I think about this as I see the cheap and gaudy earrings for display at Old Navy. Current sets have beadwork sloppily laid down and glue on, attempting to replice the couture work of many Indigenous beadwork artists I know. I think about this when I see beadwork designs stolen, bead by bead, with no acknowledgement of the original designer. I think about this when I see Inuk designs on fashion catwalks, from Non-Inuk designers. They call this act of theft Inspired By but the term cultural appropriation is more apt.
This is a term that can be confusing, as it encompasses so many different actions. Cultural Appropriation is an act that has encroached on so many different aspects of everyday life from home designs to foods to spiritual practices to Halloween costumes and of course, within fashion. Generally speaking, cultural appropriation is when one dominant culture takes from minority cultures without recognition of where it comes from, therefore changing the meaning and context of said thing, and this is considered an act of colonialism. In fashion, we see it everywhere. But you can google and see a thousand articles about the who and the why. Instead, I like to focus on the how we are claiming back our space in fashion, in couture, in a beautiful mix of modern expression and traditional aspects. From Sho Sho Esquiro to Evan Ducharme to Dickson Designs to MadAunty to Ugly Fish Designs. Some are internationally known; some are small town heroes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is their art – using their knowledge to create art that reflects teachings, inspirations, dreams, knowledge, and community. And I feel that space with this new bag. I look at it and laugh, thinking about when my old small Métis town used to have dances called smokers and everyone would come from all the surrounding communities. We would listen to live bands blaring, stage lights flashing, sitting in the arena and everyone would dance, either doing that old small-town shuffle, a drink in hand, or getting fancy with a two-step and a willing partner, all laughing and smiling. This bag reminds me of neon sunglasses and the heat on my back from a noontime sun, watching track and field races while drinking warm water, the grass tickling my legs, my aunts sitting nearby in their own colour blocked track suits, hair curled just so. This bag reminds me a thousand adventures, fringe dangling, purse swinging, where my friends and I would pile into cabs after hours and admire each other’s makeup, earrings, outfits, shining bright.
This bag reminds me of home, of community. And it’s that simple fact that reminds me why I buy Indigenous. This isn’t just me dropping cash on a brand – this is me supporting a working mom, a struggling artist, a grad student beading on the side. This is me supporting storytellers and crafters. This is me saying I believe in and I trust you to someone who may doubt their path, may doubt their work they have toiled over for long late nights. This is me supporting my people, my kin. And that’s a beautiful story to be part of.
Tenille K Campbell is a Dene/Métis author from English River First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and is enrolled in her PhD at University of Saskatchewan. Her inaugural poetry book, #IndianLovePoems (Signature Editions, 2017) is an award-winning collection of poetry that focuses on Indigenous Erotica – using humour and storytelling to reclaim and explore ideas of Indigenous sexuality. Her newest poetry book, Nedi Nezu, is coming in Spring 2021 from Arsenal Press. She is also the artist behind sweetmoon photography and the co-creator of the women’s blog, tea&bannock.