Arts, Culture & Media

These photos show the strength and beauty of aboriginal cultures in Canada

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

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Sunshine Tomma, from the Shuswap tribe of British Columbia (also known as the Secwepemc People), wears the designs of Ojibway/Cree fashion designer Linda Kay Peters. "It never clicked how important my culture was until I did my first fashion show," Tomma says. "I've been told by nonindigenous people that my people will be gone in a few hundred years." In response, she proudly said, "we're still here, and we're here to stay."

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Earlier this summer, the first Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week featured the creations of 25 designers from First Nations communities across Canada. Joleen Mitton, a former model who has Plains Cree and Blackfoot ancestry, launched the four-day event, held at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, Canada.

As a teenager, Mitton traveled the globe modeling for major brands and had many photo shoots in Asia. She later returned to her roots in Canada, where she mentored teenage indigenous girls who grew up in foster care. She helped the girls reconnect with their First Nations heritage and recruited a few of them to walk down the runway at the inaugural fashion show.

On one evening of the event, models and attendees wore red in remembrance of the indigenous women and girls who have been kidnapped or murdered in Canada. According to a 2014 report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, there were more than 1,000 victims over the past three decades, and Canada's minister for the status of women has said that figure exceeds 4,000 women.

Here are photographs from the fashion show, and scroll down to see a video of the event.

Model

Helen Tommy, 24, walks down the runway in an outfit designed by Okalani LeBlanc. Tommy, of Cree and Carrier (also known as Dakelh) First Nations, did not have many indigenous experiences in her early childhood while growing up in foster care. She reconnected with her culture through support programs for aborginal youth and later became a mentor herself.

 

“To be away from my culture, I was very lost, disconnected, and I didn’t have a sense of self,” Tommy says. “When I came off of the runway today, I felt all the power in the show today. I welled up in tears because of the fact that our people weren’t allowed to come together in such amazing things like this,” she says, referring to past laws in Canada banning tribal gatherings. We’ve come a long way,” she continues, as she wipes away tears. “It gives me goose bumps.”

 

Tommy says this event is “inspiring for not only our elders, but for our young ones to understand that it's OK to be First Nations in this society.”

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Model

Seven-year-old Samantha Weatherbee wears a dress created by her mother, versatile designer Jill Setah. Setah first began designing indigenous-inspired clothing when her children needed traditional outfits to dance in their community’s powwow. Setah hails from the Yunesit'in Government and was accepted to showcase her work at Paris Fashion Week and Oxford Fashion Week this year.

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Model

Designer Mia Hunt’s line mixes traditional and contemporary fashions. Her signature item: colorful button blankets featuring motifs of the eagle (her family crest) and the raven (her adopted family crest). Hunt was raised in the Heiltsuk Nation of the Central Coast of British Columbia and made her first button blanket for her father when he became a chief in 1981. Hunt continued designing blankets as traditional regalia for dancing, since all four of her daughters are dancers. In this photograph, her daughter Wagella models the blanket.

 

"I grew up with artists all around me," Hunt says of her family of carvers and painters. "I was always interested in fashion as a little girl. I was tall and skinny, so I had to reinvent clothes for myself."

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Montana Gottfriendson, 23, is a traditional powwow dancer and the son of a former chief of the Secwepemc People (known by nonnatives as the Shuswap). He walked the runway for the first time during Vancouver's Indigenous Fashion Week.

 

"There are not many aboriginal male models, so I feel privileged to be one of the chosen ones to be out there," he says. Gottfriendson modeled the fashions of many different designers during the four-day event, including a signature vest by the late Haida First Nation artist Bill Reid, considered one of Canada’s greatest artists. "It was a great honor to be asked to model Bill Reid's work. It is just nice to be out there representing my own background mixed with someone else’s art," he says.

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Model

First Nations designer Evan Ducharme created this gown for the REDress Project in honor of the murdered and missing indigenous women and girls in Canada. While indigenous women and girls represent just 4.3 percent of Canada’s population, they account for 16 percent of murdered women.

 

Ducharme spent his childhood immersed in his indigenous Métis culture and learned to sew from his aunt and grandmother when he was 13. In his designs, he weaves in cultural aspects from his Métis community, such as the tradition of living off the land and the strength of matriarchs. The belts in Ducharme’s collection are “an interpretation of a Métis belt that my grandmother actually made using knots that were traditionally used in the making of fishing nets,” he says. “The birth of the Métis Nation was when European settlers had children with First Nations peoples, so it’s this meeting of two different cultures,” Ducharme says.

 

His work helps reappropriate Native clothing by showcasing the beauty and meaning of the original designs created by indigenous people. “For so long, our cultures have been appropriated and taken and used without our permission,” Ducharme says. “Now, we get to have our own stories and our own ideas and our own interpretations of our indigenous culture out into the world.”

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Model

Marissa Nahanee, from the Squamish and Nisga'a Nations of British Columbia, models a dress by Dorothy Grant of the Haida Nation. Grant's designs made an impression on Nahanee early on in her life. "I remember growing up as a little girl loving all of her clothes," she says. "When I started in my career in business, I knew I made it when I was able to buy my first Dorothy Grant, and this is what I got. So, this dress personally means a lot."

 

"I always try to include at least one indigenous clothing item in what I wear,” Nahanee says. “And, if it can be authentic and right from the artist, it helps show that we're still here, we're alive. We don't live in museums. We're everyday people; we have houses, we have cars, we take buses, we work at 9-to-5 jobs and we pay taxes. It's almost like living regalia; it's letting people know that, yes, you can be proud of being Native, being First Nations."

 

"We came from a past where we were not able to gather more than a few people,” Nahanee says, “and now here we are in the hundreds, in the masses, celebrating our art and culture, so it's an amazing, beautiful feeling."

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Model

First Nations designer Autumn Jules, 20, showcases a line she recently created in fashion school. Her work represents her indigenous community, the Teslin Tlingit Council of the Yukon Territory, near Alaska.

 

“It was my mom and my grandmother who taught me how to beadwork at a young age, and I just interpreted it into my own thing,” Jules says. As a member of the Eagle Clan, Jules says she can use the eagle and whale emblem on her clothing, and her designs feature a killer whale.

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Model

Timothy Shuter walks the runway in fashion by First Nations designer Shannon Kilroy. Kilroy comes from a family of seamstresses and artists working with embroidery, beading and fringe. Her work is inspired by the traditions and legends of her tribe, the Nlaka'pamux Nation. The beige-colored linens of Kilroy’s Earthline label reflect the landscape of the Plateau where her First Nations tribe comes from. Kilroy also incorporates beads, feathers and buckskin decorations into her designs.

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Model

Designer Curtis Oland draws inspiration from his Lil’wat First Nation heritage, and he wants his fashion to break stereotypes in how indigenous cultures are represented. Oland’s work reflects memories of his childhood growing up in western Canada, such as fly fishing trips with his father and exploring nature in British Columbia’s interior.

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

Model

Cora Yeltatzie is wearing a raven’s feather tail headpiece to represent the raven clan of her family in the Haida Gwaii First Nation. The knitted blanket dress and patches of red tape on her arm symbolize the smallpox that decimated her tribe and many other indigenous people centuries ago, after contact with European colonizers.

 

“I’m very honored and blessed to be part of the show today, and hopefully I can make a statement through this,” says Yeltatzie, who is pregnant with her fourth boy.

Credit:

Sonia Narang/PRI 

And here's a video from the event, as well. 

Sonia Narang reported and photographed this story from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.