Ayaangwaamazin – “Be Determined, Be Careful” Anishinaabe Resilience Through Fashion and Design

Ontario Culture Days worked with the Sault Ste Marie Indigenous Friendship Centre (IFC) and the Art Gallery of Algoma to produce a fashion show and photo shoot, featuring the Ribbon Shirts and Skirts made by members of the IFC.

This program is part of Ontario Culture Days’ Creative Residency program.

Words by Mitch Case

The unmistakable sound of Anishinaabe women laughing echoes throughout the Art Gallery of Algoma, muffled only slightly by the masks now made necessary by the pandemic that has gripped our world. The usual hugs that would come from our grandmothers are forgone; greetings are exchanged from a safe distance. Some things have changed during these uncertain times, but one thing remains constant, the resilience of Anishinaabe Peoples and the beauty of our artwork.

It is the morning of the photoshoot for the 2020 Sault Ste. Marie Indigenous Friendship Centre Fashion Show. An event that is always a symbol of Anishinaabe resilience and cultural pride takes on a new poignant tone in the era of COVID-19. What would normally be a large event, with dozens of models and supportive community members, there is now only a handful of people; an effort to remain within the safe gathering restrictions. Where the vibrant floral patterns and rich ribbon designs would normally brighten our spirits, this year they are a reminder that we have come through so much and that we still have challenges to overcome.

Images in order: Amanda, Elise and Jill; Ashley, Ellie and Jack; Brooklyn and Patrick; Chantelle and her niece. Photos courtesy of Kevanna Studios, 2020

COVID-19 is a new and serious challenge faced by the world, but after two centuries of colonialism this is just the latest threat to our safety and security as Indigenous peoples. After forced removals, loss of land, the genocide of the Indian Residential School System, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis, and the ongoing Millennium Scoop, the survival of our unique artistic practices is a testament to the strength and resilience of Anishinaabe peoples.

The fashion show is led by two formidable Anishinaabe women who are known throughout our communities for their unrivaled knowledge of the fashion traditions of their people. Cathy Syrette and Dallas Abitong are both Ojibwe Anishinaabe women. Cathy is from Batchewana First Nation while Dallas has her roots with the Sagamok Anishinabek. Both women are self-taught in their artistic practice, and guided in their learning by Elders, knowledge holders and museum collections of Anishinaabe clothing from days gone by.

“Our design tradition reflects our worldview, when we sit in ceremony we dress ourselves in our best, not as a show of vanity, but as a show of our appreciation for the gift of life that the Creator gave us. This is just one of the many ways that we, as Anishinaabe, show respect for ourselves and for the Spirit” Cathy explains over a cup of tea in the park. “For me, it’s about reclaiming our identity and reclaiming our pride after everything we have been through.” In her role as Executive Director of the Sault Ste. Marie Indigenous Friendship Centre, Cathy was instrumental in making the fashion show a reality several years ago. The program has been taking place at the Art Gallery of Algoma, with the support of its Executive Director, Jasmina Jovanovic, for the past 3 years.

Images in order: Cathy Syrette, Dallas Abitong, Mitch Case. Photos courtesy of Kevanna Studios, 2020

As she slides beads onto a needle while she makes a new pair of earrings, Dallas tells me about why she’s so committed to her craft. “It fills my spirit, when I see Anishinaabe people who express themselves to creation through their clothing. We have been through so much, as individuals and as nations. Our path to healing is through our own culture, our own ways. We have had so much taken from us, and so much forced upon us, but if we look inside ourselves, we have so much left to draw on.” Dallas has been beading for a dozen years or more and practices both traditional and contemporary beadwork styles. As the Cultural Coordinator for the Urban Indigenous EarlyON Program at the Indigenous Friendship Centre, Dallas plays a key role in creating much of the work on display but also for working to coordinate the day’s events.

Our traditional floral designs are influenced by our connection to our territories, foods, and medicines of those lands. “For me, those designs are a reminder that we are still here. After everything we have been through, we remain here on our lands and despite the colonial fiction, they remain our lands. This is home and through those designs we carry our homes on our bodies; our land is who we are” says Dallas

Images in order: Corey and Hunter; James; Joanna and Cara; Niizh, Curtis and Nylah. Photos courtesy of Kevanna Studios, 2020

There is so much healing work that is done through our Indigenous artistic practices. As a bead worker, I have spent years speaking with our Elders about the teachings that are embedded within our artistic practices. One of the teachings that has always stood out to me was shared by one of our most respected Elders, Bawdwaywidun Benaise, who spoke about why creating things is a sacred act. “When you are making things, you are tapping into the original energy in the universe, the same creative energy that the Creator used when the Creator brought the universe into existence. That’s why it feels good, that’s why it’s a sacred thing, because you’re connecting your spirit with the Spirit.”

The Sault Ste. Marie Indigenous Friendship Centre fashion show is an embodiment of the commitment made within our communities to heal the wounds of the past. “It’s about all of them, from those littles (children) to the grandmas; the survivors. We have models who are five-year-old language students all the way up to great-grandmothers who survived the Indian Residential School system and they are both equally proud to be here and to wear those designs … that’s what fills my heart” Cathie explains, with her granddaughter listening close by.

The ongoing survival of our Indigenous fashion traditions is a testament to the strength of our cultures and our ability to heal those wounds within ourselves and in our communities. The key to that healing rests within our languages, our ceremonies and in our fashion traditions. The Sault Ste. Marie Indigenous Friendship Centre has long been a home to the Urban Indigenous community, and today serves as a place for the rebirth and revitalization of our culture and heritage.

Images in order: Paul; Robin; Sam, Ron and Zig; Shirley and Doris. Photos courtesy of Kevanna Studios, 2020

Mitch Case is a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario and serves as the elected representative of the Métisc ommunities in the Sault Ste. Marie, Lake Superior East – Huron North Shore Region on the Provisional Council of the Métis Nation of Ontario. Mitch is a bead-worker who practices a traditional Métis floral style.

Feature image: Cliff and Ryder

All photos taken by Kevanna Studios, 2020