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.

Reconciliation Means Making Things Right

Black and white drawing of an indigenous person with their fist raised holding a traditional shield-like object in their other hand. They have a checkered cap on and behind the image reads "matriarch Camp 4 ever".

An Interview with Christi Belcourt

by Katherine Nixon

Artwork by bitty

After moving away from the city in 2000, Michif artist, Christi Belcourt, began to paint full time. Over time, she says the plants and land became her teachers and she began to understand the interconnectedness of everything in a deeper and more profoundly spiritual way. Her love for the earth and her people can be seen throughout all her work.

Currently, Christi working with the Onaman Collective to support the resurgence of language and land based practices.

Recently, I was given with the opportunity to ask her some questions about her work and how she sees moving forward.

Katherine: How has art helped you express your culture?

Christi: The worldview, which is commonly shared by many different indigenous nations across the globe, is that there are laws (which are natural laws) of the earth to which human beings must adhere to and be respectful of. And those observing those natural laws, and living in, as people would more commonly referred to, as living in balance with the earth, is what has sustained human populations and the earth and every other species since the beginning of time. But what has happened more recently is that we are seeing that, especially since the advent of the industrial age, is the human species has begun to believe they contain it, and control, the natural laws. And we are seeing the consequences of breaching that very sacred and spiritual balance that we have with the earth. And so this worldview is still held within Indigenous communities of common belief and practice, of the act of walking softly with the earth and needing to really be respectful and mindful of the spirits that exist all around us, in the land which we are privileged to live upon. And that we are dependent on everything else in the earth, and that nothing, absolutely nothing is dependent on us. And so the idea that we’re at the top of the food chain is actually quite opposite in reality, where we’re really at the bottom. And we are dependent on everything, and therefore it’s incumbent upon us to walk softly, and be respectful and gentle in the ways that we approach the earth. Which is in direct contrast to the systems that are governing the earth at the moment, which are based on capitalism, and basically taking from the earth and not returning anything; really believing that human beings are meant to be dominant over the earth. Which is a really predominantly Judeo-Christian belief, and a belief of other religions around the world, that have formed the belief systems of governments that are basically destroying the world. So combined with the capitalist system and the corporate structure of the world, we are seeing a rapid climate change and things that are happening that are creating poverty and suffering around the world through the capitalist model which is mostly disguised as democracy. So my paintings now are a reflection of the belief system that we need to be in balance with the earth and we need to respect things that sustain our life system on this planet, and the ecosystems in which they live. And so, I paint what some people might think are simply pretty flowers, but what I’m trying to really say is let us exalt the beauty of the earth and the way that she sustains us all, and let us respect that beauty as if it were our own son and daughter.

K: I know you were one of the inspirations for the Valentino designs. How was that for you? When the non-Indigenous populations of the world are watching and seeing your designs, how did that feel for you to get the message out there-through your artwork?

C: I think the message that was carried forward with Valentino was that the vast majority that would have seen the dresses, or the collaborative work, would not have also necessarily read the messages about the work, and they wouldn’t have necessarily understood that was what they were seeing. For the people who did the the time to maybe look a little bit further, or read some of the interviews that happened, they maybe would have got some of the messages. Y’know, people’s attention spans are very limited nowadays. And we’re oversaturated with media, and it’s hard to get messages out in a really deep and meaningful way.

But that said, it was fun to work with Valentino. Valentino: not the Valentino, but the designers within Valentino. And it was a pleasure to work with them. As far as fashion houses go, they have been rated #1 by Greenpeace for a number of years for their consciousness, I suppose, for wanting to move towards having all of their materials sourced sustainably. And they are conscious of that. They have been, unfortunately in more recent years, accused of appropriation of Indigenous designs, and this is really very sad and disappointing for me. Because it was one of the very clear, distinct questions that I had at the beginning; and I had made it clear that I didn’t approve of fashion houses who appropriated Indigenous designs. And I find that most of the big fashion houses that appropriate on a regular basis, seem to be completely tone deaf and ignore the concerns that are being brought forward by fashion designers that are working themselves in a more conscientious way.

K: What would be your hope for the future in terms of moving forward and looking more towards real and true reconciliation?

C: For me, reconciliation cannot happen without the return of stolen Indigenous lands. And it is that simple. When we look at what colonial governments did in the 1800s and into the 1900s, is they systematically went about the earth and removed Indigenous people from their lands. Not just in North America, but in so many other continents as well. And they wanted their resources. They wanted Indigenous people out of the way so they could have a free-for-all in the resources, and make themselves rich in the process. And over time, a lot of those colonial governments, such as the British empire, the countries themselves moved towards independence from England, but they left their colonial governments behind. So although they may have gained independence, it is the fact that Indigenous peoples were removed off of their land for their resources was never resolved. And it is most the issues that we face, as Indigenous people, are a result, a direct result, of those purposeful, tactical efforts to move us off the lands and to assimilate us, or in some cases outright eliminate us. And were are and still are experiencing and live everyday with the fallout of that reality. And we cannot fix it without having what was taken be fully restored. Which to me is our lands, and complete control over our lives and over our lands. And that would mean, perhaps, that I’m talking about separation. Maybe I’m talking about other countries. Many people get up in arms when I talk about that. They say “What do expect us to do, divide Canada up into 70 different little parcels?” And other people get quite hostile when I bring this up, they say “What do you expect us to do? All move back to Europe? We’re Canadian!” And of course, Indigenous people have never, ever been unreasonable. On the contrary, Indigenous people have been welcoming, they have been accommodating, and they have taken 400 years of abuse and genocide and still, they turn around and say they’re interested in reconciliation. So I think Indigenous people have proven through their actions how exactly peaceful and beautiful they are and how willing they would be to discuss models whereby we would have our land back, but there would still enough for Canadians to be able to survive and thrive. So to me this is what reconciliation truly is, is to put us on equal footing. Whereby our nations are equal with the Canadian nation. And then we can then begin to discuss a true relationship that is reciprocal. Right now we are not anywhere near a reciprocal, equal relationship; and this has very huge consequences on our lives, and on our children’s lives. And so, when I think about reconciliation, I think about land immediately, and what I would love nothing more than to see everyone who lives on this continent live in a way that has protections and where their children are able to thrive; where our languages and our people are really able to regain everything that was stolen and lost to us over time. So that, to me is reconciliation; is you return what was stolen, and you fix it and you make it right; and then you back off.

K: You mentioned about children being affected. I wanted to ask you about the Onamoan Collective that you started with Isaac Murdoch. Could you maybe go over some of the stuff that you guys are doing?

C: It is an initiative that is being done by the elders and some of the youth in the region; Isaac and I might be the more public figures but people mistakenly think that this is our thing, when it isn’t, it is really being driven by the youth in this area. And they are actively trying to regain and learn their language. It’s a language of community that’s trying to also regain some of the traditional knowledge around land-based living and practices. And so we started to build camps and put the infrastructure in place so that we could have space on the land in which we can dedicate more time to learning the language and learning the traditional skills. One thing that is a hardship on Indigenous people that are trying to do these practices is that 80% of the land mass in Canada has been deemed Crown land, and when they try to build camps, it’s really an issue of trying to have some land on which to do these things that is outside of reserve boundaries and in their traditional territories. And there are many examples of people being persecuted by provincial laws for trying to build camps within their traditional territories. For example, right now, Sylvia McAdam, who is a co-founder of Idle No More, built a camp with her brother on their traditional territory on their dad’s traplines; the province moved in a destroyed their buildings and took everything off the land, and have now charged her. And she is to appear in court in the coming weeks, for trespassing on her own lands. And this is the common treatment of Indigenous people when they’re trying to move back to their own land to exercise their rights on their lands and to be together with their family doing traditional practices. And this is the more common treatment than not. Again, it goes back to land, that we have the issue with the land, always. And this would alleviate a lot of problems, if we could have control of our own land without being imposed upon by the provincial and federal governments.

K: That’s so important, just acknowledging the fact that this land is Indigenous land and not Settler land.

C: Can I just say one thing there? I think that land acknowledgements are nice, but they are not enough. And I believe that as more people are sort of adopting land acknowledgements into their practices of their educational institutions and within governments, I think that if anybody reading this is currently doing land acknowledgements, I would also encourage them to begin to talk and push for their local and regional First Nation and Métis people to actually have physical land. So it’s not good enough to just acknowledge the land that we’re on, but we must also move towards giving the land back, and taking action in that direction; otherwise acknowledgements become nothing more than just empty words.

K: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

C: I think that a way also that we can move forward together in the spirit of reconciliation is to join forces against corporations and governments who are trying to ruin our water. So it means not turning a blind eye to areas in other regions where their water is threatened, but offering our support. Whether it’s financial, moral, or physical support on the ground, to create connected networks of advocates and people who will take action to protect our water. This is the biggest threat that is coming in the next decades … water for the coming generations. The corporations are happy to continue to pollute the earth. And they will avoid cities and big centres where frankly the population is high of people who come out to vote. So they will avoid those places; but they have no hesitation to go through smaller towns and to go through Indigenous communities to poison their waters because they don’t have the physical numbers of support that is needed. So if we want to move forward together, then we need to unite for the water, and force governments to stop giving favours to corporations and force governments to turn to green technology and invest in that, and not ask; because they’re not listening to the people. The corporations are really running the show and they’re running governments, and we need to wake up, and unite before it’s too late for the next generations. And this is a way I see that we can work together. We always say that water has no flag and that water has no race and it’s just the people coming together to help one another, and to make sure future generations have something good and clean for themselves as we did when we were growing up.

Christi Belcourt is a Michif (Métis) visual artist with a deep respect for Mother Earth, the traditions and the knowledge of her people. In addition to her paintings she is also known as a community based artist, environmentalist and advocate for the lands, waters and Indigenous peoples.

Katherine Nixon is the unassuming attendant of St James highschool by day, but in her spare time is a hell raising humanitarian. She has spent a lot of her life volunteering and advocating for human and non-human animal rights. Her work includes organizing solidarity events, creating relief packages for Refugees, winter-survival kits for Guelph’s homeless, and spending time volunteering at Hope House.

Black and White portrait of Bitty close mouth smiling with arms raised in a black shirt. They have on glasses and dark lipstick

My name is Bitty. I am two-spirit and I make art. I have maternal Coast Salish roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed Irish, French and Euro ancestry. The art I contributed about Matriarch Camp is a piece I drew to fundraise to sustain camp and out of a deep respect and gratitude to Ma’amtagila grandmother Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas and the young matriarchs, warrior womxn and salmon protectors who hold the space that is Matriarch Camp.

Reconciliation Can Only Be Achieved by Action

grahpic of black plants with red flower buds on yellow background

By Katherine Nixon with Justin Boehringer

Artwork by Bitty

“I still remember the smell of the cold metal inside the float plane. It took me far away from home and I was never the same after that”. There was a long silence. In a broken voice, the speaker went on, “They took my culture, they took my language, they took me from my family, my people, the animals, my land, everything I knew and loved.” In a sharing circle of other residential school survivors, this man spoke his truth for the first time in a room filled with family members, health supports and the public.

“There is not a human being on this planet that does not yearn for the deep reconciliation of the human spirit” – Chief Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation

Residential Schools were government- sponsored institutions run by churches with the primary purpose to integrate or assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream Christian, Euro-Canadian culture. It is estimated that 150,000 children were brought to residential schools, and 6,000 died as a result. Children were isolated, their culture disparaged, and removed from their homes, parents, and siblings. The school separated them by gender; many times the children were pulled apart from their siblings and friends. They were forced to speak English and punished for speaking their native tongue, even when writing letters to their family. The agenda to “kill the Indian in the child” and to colonize every aspect of their being began from the very moment they stepped foot into the schools.

Residential schools violated the children by cutting their hair, taking away a very crucial part of their identity. Traditional clothes were also taken, the children were given uniforms and new colonial names. The children of residential schools had their whole identity stolen by colonialism. They were forced to observe Christian practices while being told that their own traditional practices were savage and that their family was going to hell. Children were subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, causing decades of intergenerational trauma that is still seen today.

Truth and Reconciliation was a buzz phrase created by the government as a measuring stick for their attitude toward Indigenous people. We see the government constantly vocalize their apologies; but when it comes to reconciliation, actions speak much louder than words. While Justin Trudeau has Indigenous art and headdresses hanging in the background of his speeches next to the Canadian flag, the government is currently embattled in a lawsuit for denying survivors of residential schools reparation money as they only attended during the day. Known as Day Scholars, First Nations, Métis and Inuit who were forced, as children, to attend these schools say they suffered atrocities similar to those who went full-time. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, has paid more than a total of $5-billion to residential school survivors.  Claiming it was “never that Canada never intended to ‘eradicate Aboriginal languages, culture, identity, or spiritual practices’” through the institutions. Denying experiences and harm caused by the colonial government and cherry picking who they deem worthy of their meaningless apologies. In this so-called “era” of reconciliation, it is quite troubling that Indigenous people are still being told their experiences weren’t valid or real and that a colonial government is going to dictate if their experiences at a residential school were traumatic or not.

Now, Indigenous lead organizations across Canada are actively leading initiatives to help heal their communities post-cultural genocide.

Spear-headed by Jo-Anne Gottfriedson, who was sexually abused by a priest as a child during her time at Kamloops Indian Residential School, Justice For Day Scholars is an initiative that is helping Day Scholars to be acknowledged as survivors and to validate their experiences, by moving forward to try and heal by getting some compensation and recognition. They want Canada to provide a large enough settlement for the bands where that money is put in trust. Then the bands decide what specific programs it needs to help their community. Over 100 bands have joined  the lawsuit, and it is set to go to trial in April 2019.

In British Columbia, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society has provided services to survivors for over 20 years. Originally focused on assisting with litigation processes for residential school survivors, the IRSSS has expanded to provide education services to Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks alike. The IRSSS is governed by a board of direct or intergenerational survivors from six regions of BC, and is supported by a staff of 20 professionals and 17 Elders who provide Cultural Support, most of whom are either Indian Residential School Survivors or Intergenerational Survivors. They provide culturally appropriate counselling and traditional healing done by a team of 17 Elders, as well as having a hotline for Residential School Survivors to call 24/7 and offer counselling services.  

Chanie Wenjack, misnamed by residential school teachers as Charlie Wenjack, was an Anishinaabe boy born January 19, 1954 in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve. In 1963, at the age of nine, Chanie was sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school in Kenora, Ontario. In 1966, at 12 years old, Chanie ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey in an attempt to reunite with his family, 600 kilometers away. Nine other students ran away the same day, but were all captured within 24 hours. Chanie’s body was found beside the railway tracks on October 22, 1966, a week after he escaped the school. He had succumbed to starvation and exposure. He had nothing but a little glass jar with several matches in his coat pocket. He fell victim to Canada’s legacy of colonization of Indigenous people; this was the end for Chanie but a birth to a legacy of healing.


Justin Boehringer, the Education Associate, who is a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation at the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack organization, said that the foundation is an Indigenous-led non-profit organization whose main purpose is to educate about the true intergenerational trauma caused by the schools. They use Chanie’s story as a way to show what has taken place to the children of the First Nations. When asked about how Canadians are doing in terms of Reconciliation today, Justin  said, “I always like to say in terms of Reconciliation, Canadians are doing much better than yesterday but not as good as tomorrow. We’ve come a long way but have so much further to go. Right now, too many people see reconciliation as something that is optional or just a trend; in fact, it is every Canadian’s responsibility. It needs to become something that is normalized and not just an event. So, to get where reconciliation is a part of everyday life, we still have a long way to go.” He was then asked, “How can we create reconciliation?” and responded, “The Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s definition of Reconciliation is: ‘Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.’ In order for that to happen there has to be an awareness of the past, an acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.” He listed some examples of what real Reconciliation looks like:

i) Honouring Treaties

ii) Acknowledging and letting go of the negative perceptions and stereotypes

iii) Acknowledging the past and ensuring that history never repeats

v) Learning about Indigenous history

vi) Recognition and support of the deep connections Indigenous Peoples have to the land

vii) Supporting the reclamation of identity, language, culture and nationhood

Chanie’s story is representative of the story of thousands of other residential school victims. His death in 1966 sparked national attention and the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools, prompting ethical and moral questioning of the institutions’ culturally oppressive and abusive environments. Wenjack became a symbol of resistance to the power of Colonization in Canada.

In conclusion, Justin’s message to others is to realize that we can move forward in the right direction from this story by understanding that, although this is just one story of one boy at one school, it is representative of thousands of Indigenous children and each of their own unique stories. Learning about Chanie’s story is a great first step towards reconciliation that can inspire people to learn and do more. They ask people to not stop there; let Chanie’s story open your heart to more learning and action. The right direction is different for every person because everyone is at a different spot on their learning journey. The organization is always open to educate and encourages others to look into the tools they provide to help create the change they wish to see.


Justin Boehringer is a member of the Skeetchestn Indian Band of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation.  After having completed the Indigenous Teacher Education Program (NITEP), he worked as a teacher in the Surrey School District in BC teaching English Language Learners and taking on the role of Aboriginal Advocate teacher. He is now an Education Associate at The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund as an Education Associate.

Katherine Nixon is the unassuming attendant of St James highschool by day, but in her spare time is a hell raising humanitarian. She has spent a lot of her life volunteering and advocating for human and non-human animal rights. Her work includes organizing solidarity events, creating relief packages for Refugees, winter-survival kits for Guelph’s homeless, and spending time volunteering at Hope House.

Black and White portrait of Bitty close mouth smiling with arms raised in a black shirt. They have on glasses and dark lipstick

My name is Bitty. I am two-spirit and I make art. I have maternal Coast Salish roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed Irish, French and Euro ancestry. The art I contributed about Matriarch Camp is a piece I drew to fundraise to sustain camp and out of a deep respect and gratitude to Ma’amtagila grandmother Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas and the young matriarchs, warrior womxn and salmon protectors who hold the space that is Matriarch Camp.