My Indigenous Aunties Taught Me to Champion Our Culture Through Style

Growing up in Nipissing First Nation — my Aboriginal region of Ontario, Canada — someone in my big family was always crazy about creating. My mother is Ojibwe and one of 18 siblings, and when we don’t gather for a big Sunday breakfast at my grandmother Leda’s house, you’ll find my aunts either cooking, sewing or sewing beads on their own volition. Walking into any of my aunt’s houses, you’ll always see projects in action — they could make my sister’s jingle dress for a summer powwow, or make a pair of feather-striped moccasins for my cousin’s next birthday. Even though my booking is far away and a few hours away from any big city, witnessing design in this constant action at rez, as I realized later, fueled my love of fashion. After all, I watched special handmade creations come to life almost every day.

My aunt’s talent for creating such beautiful objects, like my beaded wool gloves, is not unique to my family tree. In most Orang Asli families, aunts are the parents who continue our tradition. Although the nickname “Aboriginal aunt” is more of an affectionate term for Aboriginal parents. They can be your aunts, close family friends or respected figures in your community. Regardless, they teach future generations the customs of our tribe, so that we can continue to fight for our heritage and preserve our culture. This is especially important given the history of our people; there was a time when our customs were legally banned. Of course, Orang Asli women have always played an important role in maintaining the well -being of our community. Historically, women were revered for being highly skilled craft artists, healers and cooks. Today, aunts continue to be a pillar of our society, ensuring our past is carried into the present.

This is especially true in my own family. My sister and my cousin have all learned how to sew or bead the Ojibwe way, thanks to the tutelage of our talented aunt (intricate floral bead decoration is Ojibwe’s signature). Although I have never had a talent for craft work, I have embraced the Aboriginal style in my own way. Over the past few years, I have been working with my mother and aunt to design my own traditional costumes, all of which are embedded with special meaning.

The first thing we did together was in 2020. My mom, and my aunties Joan, Lee, and Tammy, and I decided to make my first traditional ribbon shirt. It’s based on a shirt my grandmother made for me as a child, though we updated the color of the ribbon to reflect who I am today (blue, red, yellow and white represent my parents and grandparents ’favorite colors). The image of the crane, embroidered on the back, depicts my family’s crane clan. In Ojibwe culture, the Orang Asli belong to one of seven tribes, each holding different responsibilities and qualities (the crane tribe represents leadership.)