indigenous design
Photography by Michele Crockett Photography.

How One Writer is Passing on Indigenous Design Traditions, Old and New

My daughter is only six, but I’ve already begun to envision items from my closet belonging to her one day. While I understand that when she’s grown, she may have different fashion inclinations — will she want to wear my strapless Temperley London peplum dress? — I still want her to have access to the special pieces I’ve purchased. Focusing on jewellery makes this endeavour easier, given that the question of whether it will fit her future adult body is irrelevant.

At 16 months old, she was wrapping herself up in my studded Rachel Roy tweed blazer and toddling around in my Diane von Furstenberg shoes. I was surprised that playing dress-up in my clothes would start that early, but it’s something she has continued to this day, wearing my tank tops as dresses and constantly rummaging through my jewellery for other looks to make her own. She’s a whip-smart, funny, sweet and stylish girl, and since I gave her life, I also want to give her my prized pieces.

The only things I’ve had passed down to me are my grandmother’s pink floral brooch — acquired during a random jewellery purge that I happened to be at her house for — and a square of fabric from my mom’s wedding dress that I carried with me during my own wedding. Otherwise, the idea of setting aside garments and accessories for loved ones was a foreign concept to me up until a few years ago.

My heirlooming stemmed from my sister-in-law, Sandy; she’d been browsing the Tiffany & Co. website ahead of Christmas one year and came upon the Paloma Picasso-designed Olive Leaf collection. She rang up my husband to tell him to buy the necklace for me to commemorate our first Christmas as parents to our newborn, Olive. (She’d also told him we should pass it down to our daughter because the symbolism was too perfect not to.) My husband bought the piece for us the next day.

This event set off the idea that I had, and could have, items that were meaningful and precious enough to hand down. Every time I wear the Tiffany necklace, it’s a reminder that Olive will grow old enough to wear it one day. But the necklace also reminds me of my mortality; it devastates me to think of a time when she’ll be here on earth and I won’t, but it’s soothing to know that she will have pieces of me to carry with her when I’m gone.


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A post shared by Niio Perkins (@niioperkinsdesigns)

My jewellery collection has historically been more costume-oriented, so the Tiffany necklace was an anomaly in terms of its luxurious heritage — until I started investing in pieces that celebrate my Indigenous background, that is. Despite having grown up on the Six Nations reserve in southwestern Ontario, I didn’t discover the contemporary accessories being made by Indigenous designers — which are increasingly being dubbed “luxury” due to their labour-intensive creation process and typically-limited- edition quantity — until 2018, when I was at the Indigenous Fashion Week Toronto marketplace. During the preceding fashion shows, everyone was buzzing in anticipation of shopping from incredible labels like White Otter Design Co. and Tania Larsson.

My purchase that evening was a $110 pair of intricately beaded earrings from Niio Perkins. Perkins, from Akwesasne, uses the Iroquois beadwork technique of stitching raised lines in different-hued beads to depict a large flower; the beaded designs are then backed with a strip of leather. These beautiful earrings are especially meaningful because Perkins is from the same place my mom is from. (My mother was very excited to learn that I now own something that’s Akwesasne-made.) Wearing this pair of earrings feels like carrying a symbol of her and my many relatives from that community; it’s a place we try to visit every year, and the people there have captured my own immediate family’s hearts.

Today when I open my jewellery drawer, I see pairs of acrylic earrings in black, silver and “Coke-bottle blue,” all expressing Salish ovoid shapes designed by Warren Steven Scott. And there are pastel beaded-fringe and blue and red diamond-shaped earrings, both from Running Fox Beads. These may be snapped up as soon as Olive’s ears are pierced, and I am more than happy to share them.

After all, she advised me on which pairs I should buy while I was browsing the brand’s wares at local markets or shopping online. Not only is she honing her eye in this process; I’m also exposing her to the beautiful handiwork traditions of her culture – something she doesn’t often see in our urban Scarborough, Ont., setting. I want her to be proud of her background, and one day I’ll share with her what I’ve learned about the differences in technique and motifs from Indigenous communities across the country.

I recently decided that I wanted to go in a new direction and find something that I could appreciate every day and that would spice up a wardrobe basic — in this case, my sturdy canvas Baggu bag. I began investigating patch options. The beautiful ones I’d see from different makers tended to be florals or sweetgrass, and while they are culturally important and certainly lovely, I didn’t feel they represented me. I’m not outdoorsy — nor can I tell a hydrangea from a peony. I also searched pop culture references—especially from television, since that’s a lexicon I take quite seriously — but I couldn’t find any that were a nod to a favourite show or character.

indigenous design
Imagery courtesy of Kelly Boutsalis.

I decided to commission a large beaded patch instead — I wanted it to really resonate. I love the subversive twist of a movie or film character being depicted through the time-worn medium of beading. I approached my cousin Carley Gallant-Jenkins; she’s based in Brantford, Ont., and recently launched her own beading business. We tossed around ideas of characters and settled on She-Ra, the princess superhero of my childhood. Thanks to a recent Netflix revival, She-Ra is also my daughter’s favourite superhero, and we made sure we watched each new season. In addition to offering up some nostalgia, She-Ra was a strong, caring role model for my kid.

Through back-and-forth messages, the three of us settled on what image my cousin would bead: She-Ra in full-on badass mode — her hair flowing, fists together, her red cape streaming behind her. Olive was incredibly excited at this prospect, not only because it was her beloved She-Ra but also because she knew it would one day be hers. And my cousin and I are hopeful that what she creates will make our elders happy “to see a traditional art form continuing, evolving, living and breathing.”

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