What You Wear

illustration of a moon with floral inside

An Interview with Riley Kucheran

by Ciana Hamilton

When we think about ways to create paths of cultural healing, we must not ignore the very basics of culture. Things like art, food, medicine and language need to be restored and brought back to a place of admiration if we expect true healing to occur. Clothing is no exception. Today, Indigenous fashion designers have begun to make a powerful shift in reclaiming pieces of lost Indigenous culture. Riley Kucheran devoted some time to speak with The Peak Magazine about his work around the revival of Indigenous cultures by honouring the legacies, and diversity, of Indigenous clothing.

Can you introduce yourself and tell me a about your current project, Fashioning Reconciliation?

I’m an Ojibway PhD student from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg studying Indigenous fashion design resurgence at Ryerson and York University in Toronto.

In 2016, I was hired by the School of Fashion at Ryerson to work on Fashioning Reconciliation. Initially it was a three-hour lecture and panel in an undergraduate fashion course open to the broader Ryerson community. The project has transformed into a community-based project to share truths about the role of clothing in colonization and to mobilize Indigenous resurgence with fashion design.

We still hold annual events at the School of Fashion that continue to uplift Indigenous perspectives on cultural appropriation and Indigenizing the fashion industry, but these conversations are now happening across Canada and around the world. 

Fashioning Reconciliation has grown to reflect and shape my PhD research based on the relationships I’ve cultivated in the Indigenous fashion community. It’s now an upcoming edited collection and symposium. The book will fill a gap in literature on the history and contemporary context of Indigenous fashion in Canada and beyond, and the symposium is going to coincide with Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto 2020.

This issue of The Peak is centered on Healing Legacies, with a focus on decolonizing and mending cultural trauma. How does Indigenous clothing shift from being targeted by colonizers to being a tool to create a resurgence of Indigenous culture?

To explore how fashion was used as a weapon during the attempted cultural genocide of Indigenous people, I did some archival research that shaped the core of my upcoming dissertation, “Decolonizing Fashion.” I found that the role of clothing was used as a tool for assimilation: children entering the residential school systems were stripped of their cultural clothing and made to appear closer to a Western ideal, if properly clothed at all. This process was carefully photographed and documented, and was used as propaganda to sell cultural assimilation as a “successful” venture in Canada. There is inherent power in telling this truth, in revisiting these archives, in finding examples of children resisting this process, in order to clear a path for counter-narratives and resurgence. By engaging with contemporary Indigenous fashion designers, who are often revisiting their own ancestry and history, we can begin to heal and move forward. Indigenous fashion is holistically sustainable and community minded, and when designers create from an Indigenous perspective, it uplifts everyone.

Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto had its first year in 2018. Why is it important to create a platform where only Indigenous fashion is highlighted, celebrated and respected?

There is systemic inequity and a rigid hierarchy in the fashion industry that works to exclude marginalized fashion designers, particularly Indigenous designers. The exclusion is followed by commodification and appropriation of Indigenous designs; a direct result of the colonial framework we are living in. A counter-narrative was critically needed, particularly in Toronto. Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto, led by Sage Paul, is about carving an alternative path to amplify these voices beyond the Euro-centric lens of the broader fashion industry. Gathering is so critical for the resurgence of Indigenous culture—for decades it was illegal for Indigenous people to gather under the Indian Act—but now we can gather, strategize, mobilize, and build our own Indigenous fashion systems.

Outside of the world of high-profile fashion design – how can everyday Indigenous folks reclaim lost culture through clothing?

Design and dress practices, whether customary or every-day, are generational in many communities. Clothing is passed down and it often comes with teachings that were typically lost in the process of colonization. I think everyone can try and reconnect this way—by going through our families closets and recycling or upcycling what’s already been made. I also think that purchasing less fast fashion and trying to be mindful of sustainability is also inherently Indigenous and reconnects us with our culture: dressing should be ceremony.

Reclaiming culture can mean anything from finding a way to relearn traditional skills and apply them in a new context, to buying and supporting Indigenous-made designs that you feel connected to. or even simply having conversations with the communities you have access to. You can share memories, stories, and feelings on clothing practices and making.

How does one, who is non-Indigenous, support Indigenous clothing/art?

Creating safe spaces for conversation, fostering long term reciprocal relationships, and understanding the work that goes into each piece is crucial. Supporting Indigenous designers and makers is number one. When purchasing Indigenous products, ask yourself: do you know the maker of what you are buying? Are the profits supporting the artisans or designers themselves? Luxury and fast fashion companies often incorporate Indigenous iconography or designs in their collections and outsource the labour to cut costs without considering Indigenous artisans that work tirelessly to make sustainably-minded garments or accessories that hold meaning in every stitch, shape, or bead. Support them, not multinational companies.

What do you hope to see as a result of your work around Indigenous culture and fashion?

I hope to continue working on structural changes and cultural resurgence, or providing the resources and opportunities needed for Indigenous fashion designers to receive the recognition they deserve. I’ve had many difficulties but also privileges in life, and I want to mobilize universities and education to the benefit of community. I hope to nurture and support the Indigenous fashion movement, and educate people about this crucial history and the beautiful future that awaits.

Riley Kucheran is an Ojibway PhD student from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg studying Indigenous fashion design resurgence at Ryerson and York Universities. He’s the Indigenous Advisor in the Yeates School of Graduate Studies and an active community member in Toronto. His research called #FashioningReconciliation is based in the Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change

Ciana Hamilton is a happy nappy freelance creative writer & journalist. When she’s not writing she can be found doing fun shit with her kids.

Plant Your Seeds, Watch You Grow

black and white picture of book cover. It has a sketch of two black farm workers. It reads "Farming while black: Soul fire farm's practical guide to liberation on the land by Leah Penniman forward by Karen Washington

A book review of Farming While Black

by Ciana Hamilton

When I first got my hands on Farming While Black, I felt my soul rejoice. I have always felt a strong connection to land; whether it’s a long walk in the woods or growing a zillion tomatoes in my garden. Something in my soul sets on fire whenever I find myself intertwined with the earth. Even though this love of land comes naturally for me, I can’t help but feel misplaced, disconnected and even hurt whenever I attempt to foster a stronger bond with Mother Earth. From the moment you open Farming While Black you can feel the dedication, energy and love that Leah Penniman poured into this book. In its most practical form, Farming While Black is a hands-on how-to guide for everything to do with tending to the land. Once you begin to dive deeper though you realize it is so much more than a generic farmers guide. Farming While Black is 16 chapters of beauty, colour and testimony. It is as pragmatic as it is reflective of Black peoples’ history, connection and rehabilitation towards farming.

Penniman described Farming While Black as the book she wished she had growing up. Throughout the chapters, she seamlessly integrates her years of farming expertise with her personal journey of finding true liberation working on and with the land. Chapters such as, “Finding Land and Resources” explores different points of access to land, whether it is leased, communal, bought or through a land trust.  In chapter six, you can find vital information on crop planning, transplanting seedlings and days to maturity for a variety of herbs and vegetables. In each of these more practical chapters, Penniman includes UPLIFT subsections that draw connections to African ways of farming and present day uprising within Black communities. In one chapter, “Feeding the Soil”, one UPLIFT section speaks on African Dark Earth, a highly fertile and dark soil that was created 700 years ago by women in Ghana and Liberia. Farming While Black is easily the best book for Black (Indigenous, Brown, Latinx) folks who feel the duality of detachment and yet, the desire to build skills in farming.

For most of us, it doesn’t take much to get outside and get our hands dirty. There is nothing really stopping Black people from contributing to urban community gardens or being involved with farm internships. But where the work gets tricky is when it comes to repairing the internal damage that many Black people carry as a result of slavery. In short, slavery has destroyed our relationship with land. That pain I sometimes feel towards land, is a pain that is felt by most Black folks across Turtle Island. It is the same pain that is shared with our Indigenous cousins and others who have been displaced at the hands of colonialism. It is the pain we often try to bury; and in an attempt to forget, we sabotage ourselves from regaining identity through something that has been in our history for centuries. There is no question that even Leah Penniman felt this distorted disconnection when she first began her journey of farming. The history of Black connection to land has been greatly misconstrued to fit a narrative of white supremacy. We are perpetually told and reminded that our only real connection to farming was when our ancestors were enslaved, exploited and forced to endure hard labour. Rarely is there a discussion around Black farming prior to slavery or Black farming after slavery.  Rarely is there any discussion on African culture and how intertwined our African relatives were with nature, land and crops. The space that Penniman dedicates towards healing our land legacies in Farming While Black is what sets this book apart from any other farmer’s how-to guide.  Chapters such as: Honoring the Spirits of the Land, Plant Medicine, Cooking and Preserving and Healing from Trauma are the parts of this book that invite readers to dig deep within themselves and recognize where healing needs to begin. In “Healing from Trauma “ Penniman said, “Many of us have confused the terror our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We do not stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty, because we imagine that would revert us to bondage.” What makes Farming While Black a book of true deliverance, are the constant reminders from Penniman, and all those at Soul Fire Farm, that farming is in our blood. Whether it is through the UPLIFT sections throughout the book, the wealth of knowledge (old and new) or the beautiful photographs of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Latinx folks working harmoniously on the land, Farming While Black is the reminder that our history in slavery will not erase our history of land stewardship.

I am a descendant of African heritage. The women in my family were farmers, caretakers and keepers of the Earth. Farming While Black is my awakening to remember and honour my ancestors. With every shovel of dirt, every seed planted, every vegetable harvested, I vow to never forget that they were proud people of the land and today, so am I.

Ciana Hamilton is a happy nappy freelance creative writer & journalist. When she’s not writing she can be found doing fun shit with her kids.

Missing Links

The Injustices Surrounding Prenatal Care in Canada

by Ciana Hamilton

Reproductive Justice isn’t a term that many people understand. And maybe that’s the first part of the problem. In contrast, abortion rights seem to be interpreted more easily; does a woman in Canada have the right to terminate her pregnancy? Yes. Does this mean Canada gets an A on reproductive justice? Not really.

Canada is one of the countries where abortion is legal; a woman who decides to abort her pregnancy in Canada has no legal restrictions. However, accessibility to abortion clinics can vary from province to province. If a woman chooses to abort her pregnancy but is unable to access an abortion clinic where does that leave her? Reproductive justice is the framework that gives an individual choice over their reproductive health, but puts the responsibility on governments to provide accessible care to accommodate those choices.

In 1994 a group of black women from Chicago recognized that there were other important reproductive issues, besides abortion, that were affecting women in their community. This group of women created the term Reproductive Justice. They called themselves the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice and their goal was to give black women a voice and a platform outside of the mainly white, middle class, women’s rights movement. Almost twenty-five years later the term is known worldwide and represents Indigenous Women, Women of Colour and Trans People.

Today many people of marginalized communities face reproductive injustice and oppression. Access to safe, compassionate prenatal care where both medical and cultural needs are met, doesn’t always happen. Women and families are not being given access to resources and information in order to make informed choices; community services are not accessible and their voices are not being heard. In Canada, Aboriginal women face the most significant inequality around maternal care, especially those in remote communities. Women of colour, women living at or below the poverty line, teen mothers, LGBTQ families and HIV positive women also face the reality of reproductive inequality when seeking care. There appears to be two crucial factors when discussing reproductive justice: inaccessible midwives and a lack of representation in the healthcare system.

Midwives

For many women, the first time their reproductive health is spotlighted is when they become pregnant. This was true for me, being pregnant for the first time at 23. I did not even know that I had reproductive rights. As a young, black, woman from a low-income home, I felt the system was stacked against me from the beginning. I did not have a family doctor and was nearing my second trimester without receiving any regular prenatal check-ups. I remember initially wanting a midwife but was unable to access one in the city I was in. I remember going to a walk-in clinic and practically begging the doctor to refer me to anyone who could provide prenatal care for my baby and me. She did not. Eventually, with some family help, I got in with a team of obstetricians. I was initially relieved, but quickly realized the type of care I would receive was nothing like I imagined. I got basic treatment; none of the doctors cared to know my name. None of the doctors asked if I had a birth plan. I was not given options or choices. I was handed requisitions for tests and sent on my way. I didn’t know who would deliver my baby until the day of delivery. Reflecting on my experience with my first child, what sticks out for me was my desire to have a midwife and being unable to access one. I didn’t know much about midwifery but I felt like a midwife would be the obvious choice for compassionate, trustworthy and respectful care.

Midwifery has gained traction over the years, going from a misunderstood hippie alternative to the more natural, inclusive option. In fact, more parents are continuing to seek out care from midwives. According to the Better Outcome Registry Network or BORN, in Ontario between 2014-2015, midwives cared for 15% of all births in the province. It also helps that midwifery services are covered by OHIP. And, although there has been an increase in the amount of midwives providing care, there still seems to be a lack of midwifery services in the communities that need it the most. If given the choice, I strongly believe most women, specifically marginalized women, would choose to be cared for by a midwife. However, if midwifery services are inaccessible in their community, then there is no choice.

In early December I sat down with Martha Aitkin, a registered midwife in Guelph who has been practicing for 21 years. She believes there are some key differences between care from a doctor and care from a midwife. “The way we organize and the way we give care gives us a lot more time. Time with women and their families to get to know who they are and what is important to them. Time to answer their questions and share information to allow them to make their own decisions about their care.” Aitkin adds, “if a person has a midwife then they have a known care provider, someone they have had a chance to develop a relationship with – someone that they trust. That enhances the safety of their care.”

Pictured above from top to bottom: Martha Aitkin and Nicole Barrette

The midwifery model of care is beautifully simple. Give women choice. Give women a safe space to ask questions, review options and be vulnerable. Give people who identify as LGBTQ+ an inclusive space that is accepting and easily adaptable to non-binary lifestyles. Provide access to materials that can educate and inform families about choices around parenting.

Midwives also provide in home, postpartum care up to six weeks following the birth. For women in the far north, such as Nunavut, extended postpartum care within their own community could be extremely supportive. These women could potentially receive extra support around breastfeeding, diagnosis and treatment of postpartum depression, as well as incorporating traditional medicines for physical healing. Martha spoke about her experience providing care for Inuit women in Nunavut, one of the places that still suffers the most reproductive injustice in Canada. “Most women in Nunavut have to go far away, separate from their families to other cities – Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yellowknife to have their babies. They could be gone for a month to six weeks separated from their other children and the rest of their community. That’s an injustice as far as I’m concerned and the solution as far as I can see is the growth of midwifery services provided by Inuit people for Inuit people.” Martha is right; one possible solution for many Indigenous women living in remote communities across Canada is the growth of midwives in their communities. Imagine the possibilities, women would have access to a midwife close to their home, receive regular prenatal care and be able to deliver their babies in an environment where they feel safe.

When I became pregnant with my second child, I knew I wanted my experience to be different. I wanted to exercise my reproductive rights to the fullest. I wanted to be cared for by a midwife. I wanted an un-medicated homebirth. I wanted to breastfeed. Luckily, I was able to access and get what I had hoped for. I was cared for by two midwives in Guelph, I had a completely non-medicated home birth and I have proudly breastfed my daughter for more than a year. My second experience completely changed my views on reproductive care and reproductive choice. My voice was heard and my choices were respected. Instead of being told to take certain tests, I was asked. I felt empowered and valued as a parent. A part of this empowerment came from the quality of care I received by other women. My midwives were women who respected the autonomy of pregnancy and parenthood. We worked as a team to strategize the safest maternal care and delivery for me. They ensured that I always felt comfortable with any procedure or test that needed to take place. Ultimately, the connection between my midwives and I grew much deeper than I could have anticipated. And as a result, I felt safe.

Representation

If we are looking at ending reproductive injustice than we need to look at equal representation amongst care providers. Midwives provide a piece of that representation; they represent the power and beauty that is a woman birthing a child. They represent the diversity in methods of care. They represent open spaces for different family dynamics. However, midwives are in high demand and in short supply. Not having equal representation in the healthcare system for a marginalized person creates an automatic distrust and assumption that those providing care – the doctors, the nurses – don’t understand the issues that a vulnerable person might face. Representation doesn’t begin and end with healthcare professionals; doulas, childbirth educators, lactation consultants and patient advocates also need to be included to represent the diversity of the people receiving care.

Two years ago I began volunteering for Women Everywhere Breastfeed (WEB), a volunteer run program out of the Guelph Community Health Centre. The cafe offered by WEB is held weekly and is aimed at anyone in the community who may be facing challenges around breastfeeding and who is looking for accessible support from their peers. The program is coordinated by Nicole Barrette, an advocate for reproductive justice, who is deeply invested in ensuring that her work remains inclusive of all people who are needing support during their parenting journey. Nicole is also a birth and postpartum doula and has been for 11 years. She has first-hand experience with the layers of stigma that marginalized women and families face from health care providers when receiving reproductive care. One group we talked about were parents who identify as LGBTQ+, specifically Trans people. “There’s a lack of gender diversity acknowledgment – not everybody who has a baby is identifying as a woman. We talk about breastfeeding/chestfeeding at the WE Breastfeed program.

Chestfeeding, the term Nicole mentioned, is an example of how interchangeable language can be used to make a program more representative of all parents who may choose to attend. Chestfeeding is a term that could be used by a Trans masculine or gender-non-conforming parent. It simply takes out the word breast for a parent who is using the milk from their body   to feed their child, but because they do not identify as a woman, the term breast [may?] conflict with their gender identity. Most hospitals and doctors’ offices have information promoting breastfeeding, and the term breastfeeding is almost always used. WEB is one of the only places I’ve seen that includes terminology that would be representative of Trans parents.

If we are looking for ways to end reproductive injustice, then we must allow communities to represent themselves in the healthcare system. Reproductive justice starts at the grassroots level- people with diverse backgrounds and experiences need to be at hospitals, clinics or community centres offering advocacy services and providing basic resources to educate people.

Collective efforts need to be put forth to educate, empower and equip those who are victimized by Canada’s accessible, but oppressive health care system. The Women of African Descent created the term and set the stage for an open and honest discussion around reproductive injustices faced by marginalized women. It is up to us to demand a change from a system that needs to be held accountable.


Ciana Hamilton
Ciana Hamilton is a freelance writer based out of Guelph,Ontario. She respectfully honours Turtle Island as sacred Indigenous lands. Her work leans towards creative non-fiction and she enjoys writing about issues surrounding advocacy, justice, feminism and cultural ancestry.