Chief Janice George of the Squamish Nation gathered backstage with a group of models dressed in her intricate hand-woven wool shawls, abalone jewelry and swan feather earrings. All the items have important cultural significance for George’s people, native to the Pacific Northwest coast.
The models lined up in a row, posing for photos just before walking the runway one-by-one at Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week. This is no ordinary fashion show — the designers, models, staff and organizers are from Canada’s First Nations – and it’s one of the rare places you can see all Indigenous faces on a runway.
“This is our traditional wear,” said 24-year-old Melita Gus, wrapped in a thick white shawl with bold, rectangular red patterns. “I feel like I’m close to my ancestors today.”
Indigenous Fashion Week is the brainchild of former model Joleen Mitton, whose parents are from the Cree Nation. Mitton created the event as a way for Indigenous people to reclaim their First Nations heritage through fashion.
“In my parents’ time, they never saw Indigenous people in the limelight,” she said. “Both of them struggled a lot with racism, because they are visibly native. That’s another huge reason why this fashion week exists, is to combat stuff like that.”
Mitton has spent years mentoring Indigenous girls who grew up in foster care in Canada and never knew much about their culture. She’s recruited some of them to be the face of the fashion show, and helped them reclaim their First Nations heritage through fashion. The event encourages Indigenous young people to openly celebrate their aboriginal culture, which has a long history of being subjugated in Canada. For decades, the Canadian government banned First Nations potlatch — a traditional ceremony that included gift-giving, feasting and dancing.
Today, Indigenous Fashion Week in Vancouver brings traditional regalia — from the striking patterns of button blankets to capes displaying family animal crests, including the eagle and shark — to the runway for all to see.
“Indigenous fashion isn’t just about looking good, it’s about reclaiming parts of who we are,” said Mandy Nahanee, a First Nations storyteller and educator. “We can show our young people this is how beautiful, and amazing, and talented we are, that you should be walking down runways and standing tall with your chin up, being proud of who you are. We need everyone in the world to know that we’re still here.”
Several hours before each night’s show, an army of hair and make-up artists backstage prepared the models for the runway. Led by Amber George, who is from the Dakelh, or Carrier Nation, in northern British Columbia, the hair and make-up team created classic First Nations-inspired looks that embraced Indigenous faces.
“The [global] standards of beauty are not us, they don’t look like First Nations women,” George said. She said that after 25 years of working in the beauty industry, it’s only recently become acceptable to represent Indigenous women the way they are.
“I was being taught to change everybody’s face shape to what the ‘ideal’ face shape is,” George said. “I love that we’re now starting to see models that represent all kinds of cultures, including our own, so I think it’s nice that the young women can feel really beautiful, and in power no matter what their size or their face shape is. It’s bringing out their own beauty and being themselves,” she said.
Indigenous youth in the mentoring program said the fashion week helps build their self-confidence. “Just seeing an Indigenous face on the runway was moving and empowering, and it made me feel I can do anything,” said 17-year-old Deaunte Nelson, who volunteered behind the scenes.
The event also honored murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada. While women and girls from First Nations backgrounds represent just 4.3 percent of Canada’s population, they account for 16 percent of murdered women. Earlier this year, Canada released the national inquiry’s final report into the high number of Indigenous women who have gone missing or been killed, describing it a “genocide.”
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.
For some designers and models, fashion week brought them closer to family they never knew growing up. Designer Lesley Hampton, who flew in from Toronto with her array of vibrant dresses, didn’t grow up around her native culture as an adoptee.
“This is the first showcase I’m doing since being reconnected with my birth grandmother and birth aunts,” Hampton said while wiping away tears. “Reconnecting with the Indigenous community through fashion has been so eye-opening, and a great way to learn about the people I didn’t grow up with.”
Vancouver-based designer Sho Sho Esquiro, who is Kaska Dene and Cree, grew up in the Canada’s northern Yukon territory with her parents.
“Many of my family members went to residential school,” Esquiro said, referring to the Canadian system that forcibly removed 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and sent them to boarding schools. These schools, two-thirds of which were run by the Catholic Church, converted children to Christianity and prohibited them to speak their own language. Many were also physically and emotionally abused. “I’m actually the first generation not to go to residential school,” she said.
Last year, Pope Francis refused to apologize to survivors for the role the Roman Catholic Church played in operating these schools. Esquiro’s collection, “No Apology Necessary,” is a response to that: “I want Indigenous people to take ownership of our own healing,” she said.
Nahanee, the storyteller and educator, added that the fashion week is an act of defining their worth to the rest of the world.
“We’re shining the light and saying, we are worthy, we’re worthy of respect, we’re worthy of dignity, we’re worthy of being treated like human beings, and we don’t deserve to be killed.”