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Decolonizing the Trading Post

 

Art: “Patience” by Chief Lady Bird.Art: “Patience” by Chief Lady Bird.

During the long drive to my new home in northwestern Ontario, I pass numerous Trading Posts that line the highway. I love Indigenous-made products and art but these places are often depressing, trading more in the fetishization and commercialization of Indigeneity for the amusement of colonial settlers.

The Trading Post I stopped into at Espanola featured an Indigenous section with leather products and some authentic traditional artwork. I picked out gorgeous moccasins but when I reached the checkout, I gagged at shelves lined with knock-offs—appropriated Indigeneity, Canada 150 promotional products, sweatshirts adorned with moose and Mounties, tacky souvenirs made who knows where.

Is a person meant to pair some Manitobah Mukluks with signature Hudson’s Bay Company striped mittens—one showing your appreciation of Indigenous culture, the other revealing just how deeply your thoughts are trapped in a colonial mindset? It’s a trendy look that makes me cringe.

I couldn’t buy the moccasins and couldn’t stop thinking about the colonial roots of Trading Posts—or Consumerism Posts as Chief Lady Bird of Mnjikaning First Nation (FN) calls them. I turned to her and Faith Redsky of Shoal Lake FN, two powerhouse Anishinabekwe artists, to help me  understand how we can support the Indigenous Femxle* & Two-Spirited economy across Turtle Island, while avoiding the colonial commodification, appropriation and racism often on glaring display alongside Indigenous-made products.


Both have travelled the same winding highway and are equally perplexed by the continued existence of Trading Posts. As Chief Lady Bird asked, “What are we trading when we go in? We are exchanging money for goods. It’s not really trading; it’s just capitalism and consumerism, you know what I mean?”

So what does it mean to enter a real trading post? Let’s strap on our non-binary lenses and delve into these waters together, in an act of decolonizing our thought processes while learning new ways of being, knowing and supporting one another. Understanding Indigeneity outside of a monolith is an important step. That means respecting the opinions and teachings of each community, each individual.

Is a person meant to pair some Manitobah Mukluks with signature Hudson’s Bay Company striped mittens—one showing your appreciation of Indigenous culture, the other revealing just how deeply your thoughts are trapped in a colonial mindset? It’s a trendy look that makes me cringe.

I couldn’t buy the moccasins and couldn’t stop thinking about the colonial roots of Trading Posts—or Consumerism Posts as Chief Lady Bird of Mnjikaning First Nation (FN) calls them. I turned to her and Faith Redsky of Shoal Lake FN, two powerhouse Anishinabekwe artists, to help me  understand how we can support the Indigenous Femxle* & Two-Spirited economy across Turtle Island, while avoiding the colonial commodification, appropriation and racism often on glaring display alongside Indigenous-made products.

Both have travelled the same winding highway and are equally perplexed by the continued existence of Trading Posts. As Chief Lady Bird asked, “What are we trading when we go in? We are exchanging money for goods. It’s not really trading; it’s just capitalism and consumerism, you know what I mean?”

So what does it mean to enter a real trading post? Let’s strap on our non-binary lenses and delve into these waters together, in an act of decolonizing our thought processes while learning new ways of being, knowing and supporting one another. Understanding Indigeneity outside of a monolith is an important step. That means respecting the opinions and teachings of each community, each individual.

Faith Redsky

Faith Redsky

Faith Redsky is a beader, designer, painter, and potter. She is inspired by traditional Ojibwe florals, contemporary and streetwear styles, and incorporates as many bright and beautiful colors into her work. One of her most recent pieces include the use of birch bark; earrings, pendants, bags etc.

How do we tell the difference between Indigenous-made and non-Indigenous-made products? Are Indigenous-made items merely a sum of their physical pieces?

Faith puts it this way: “I am not a sweatshop, I put my spirit and energy into my work.” Expecting Indigenous artists to create “on-demand” for others has negative impacts on mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. She shared the need for buyers to understand that purchasing from Indigenous makers may cost more than appropriated knock-offs—and that is because you are also paying for their teachings, spirit and the time to create for the world. To ignore this would be to undervalue the sacredness of the items. Faith shared her teachings that beaded jewellery should be treated as sacred and not be worn when consuming alcoholic or other mind-altering substances or in settings where those substances are present, such as night clubs. “Something that was authentically made and handmade…coming from materials that were hunted ethically, tracked ethically, tanned in the community by people who hold this knowledge from their ancestors and their family, there is just something about it. It kind of goes beyond words when you come in contact with something that is made Indigenously.”

What are the biggest barriers facing Indigenous womxn* and Two-Spirited entrepreneurs attempting to navigate these patriarchal colonial spaces?

Both Chief Lady Bird and Faith identified a myriad of barriers, including the transactional platforms themselves. Faith shared that the lack of a centralized space to find local Indigenous makers—such as a mass website where you could search for moccasins, mukluks, pieces of regalia, etc—poses a challenge for smaller makers seeking to sell their wares. However, a centralized site is not without issues, as Chief Lady Bird eloquently expresses. These systems of purchasing defy the traditional ways of reciprocal being and take the spirit out of the transaction. It’s why she doesn’t have a website for her artwork, but utilizes social media as the tool for both engagement and sale.

As womxn* from historically Matriarchal communities, they identified the consumeristic patriarchal society we exist in as the largest barrier. It places expectations on womxn*, Indigenous womxn* in particular, to take advice from non-Indigenous folks, meet unrealistic mechanical deadlines and follow the colonial ways of being. Boundary setting, and staying true to oneself and teachings, is challenging but also the most important part of being an Indigenous entrepreneur.

It’s an act of resisting appropriation. As Chief Lady Bird described, “the whole colonial consumeristic capitalist mindset is like ‘let’s make a bunch of this for less money so more people get it and we make more money’ and that’s never been the Indigenous way of making and selling our goods … This mentality is just so ingrained and a lot of people are stuck in the system without realizing that they are stuck in it.” She went on to discuss the personal impacts of appropriation when she publicly stood up against Amanda PL, a non Indigenous artist working in the style of an acclaimed Indigenous painter. The backlash she endured — horrendously abused online, degraded in public shopping centres—detrimentally affected her wellbeing. She felt isolated and alone against the colonial world despite the immense strength she knew she carries with her as a proud Anishinabekwe.

Chief Lady Bird

Chief Lady Bird

Chief Lady Bird is a Chippewa and Potawatomi artist from Rama First Nation and Moosedeer Point First Nation, who is currently based in Rama. She graduated from OCAD University in 2015 with a BFA in Drawing and Painting and a minor in Indigenous Visual Culture.

How can non-Indigenous folks respectfully participate in supporting Indigenous femxle* and Two-Spirited entrepreneurs?

Chief Lady Bird shared that when it comes to jewelry or artwork “the overall general rule and consensus from the community is for non-Indigenous people to simply do their research, do their work to make sure that they are forwarding, supporting and uplifting and purchasing wares from actual Indigenous artists.” However, she expressed that “in terms of something like ribbon skirts I feel like that it is a little bit different because that’s something we would wear to ceremony and I feel that if someone non-Indigenous is buying it, they are not necessarily wearing in the intended way” – that is unless they are accepted by an Indigenous community where they are welcomed to participate in ceremonies and hold the teachings to do so, like her sister-in-law.

Faith added that we must understand that not every Indigenous artist creates in the same ways. Buyers need to respect the teachings of makers and their spiritual journey as making products is not simply about their source of income. You can do this by politely asking questions and not belittling artists, which happens frequently when a non-Indigenous purchaser is told that something cannot be made exactly as they wish it to be.

And now that we have deepened our understanding and decolonized the trading post, where can we find and support Indigenous femxle* and Two-Spirited entrepreneurs?

This Indigenous Women’s Holiday Market is a great place to start your search.

The Indigenous Media Network has compiled this list of local makers.

The InuitArt Quarterly provides a search site,

And this CBC article provides a number of helpful links and search tags.

Faith Redsky is a self taught artist from Shoal Lake 40 First Nations. Currently living in Thunder Bay, and attending Lakehead University for her degree in Bachelor of Education and Visual arts. She is a beader, designer, painter, and potter. She is inspired by traditional Ojibwe florals, contemporary and streetwear styles, and incorporates as many bright and beautiful colors into her work. One of her most recent pieces include the use of birch bark; earrings, pendants, bags etc.

Chief Lady Bird is a Chippewa and Potawatomi artist from Rama First Nation and Moosedeer Point First Nation, who is currently based in Rama. She graduated from OCAD University  in  2015  with  a  BFA  in  Drawing  and  Painting  and  a  minor  in  Indigenous  Visual Culture. Chief Lady Bird’s art practice is continuously shapeshifting, and is always heavily influenced by her passion for empowering and uplifting Indigenous folks through the subversion of colonial narratives. She utilizes her social media platform(s) along with digital illustration, acrylic painting,  mixed media portraits, and murals to centre contemporary truths and  envision  Indigenous  Futurisms  by  portraying  intersectional  Indigenous  experiences and asserting our presence on stolen land. Specifically, much of her work is based on the stories we tell through the reclamation of our bodies and sexuality, which often intersects with land sovereignty and language reclamation, and activates peripheral dialogues about tattooing practices, cultural appropriation, reconnection and various forms of love (self love,lateral love, ancestral love). She hopes that her images can be a catalyst for reimagining our relationship with the land, each other, and ourselves.
Chief  Lady  Bird  has  illustrated  for  notable  organizations  such  as  Chirp  Magazine,  Flare Magazine, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Scholastic and Vice News to name a few. In 2019 she provided  the  illustrations  for  the  animated  video  “Land  Acknowledgements  And  Why  Are They Important” by Selena Mills and Local Love, which has been circulated widely throughout  many  educational  institutions  to  guide  educators  toward  a  deeper  understanding  of Land Acknowledgements and their cultural significance. She also created the book cover design for Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves UK release, and designed the #IndigenousPeoplesDay Turtle Island emoji for Twitter in 2018. In 2019, Chief Lady Bird illustrated the Scholastic children’s book Nibi’s Water Song authored by Sunshine Tenasco of Her Braids. This book follows the journey of a young Indigenous girl who fights for clean water for her community. As quoted by Quill and Quire: “Tenasco writes openly and honestly about the unequal treatment of Indigenous communities in Canada. Nibi’s song conveys the powerful message that clean water is a basic human right that should be afforded to everyone regardless of their ethnicity. The book successfully functions as a catalyst for an important conversation between parents and children.

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Our Voices

Decolonizing Our Hearts

Decolonize Your Mind Exhibit. Photo: Krui.fm Radio 2016

When you hear the word “decolonization,” what comes to mind? Land acknowledgements, the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, or the Medicine Wheel? Learning Indigenous traditions and the history of colonization? The act of offering the lands that were taken from Indigenous people back to their rightful owners? (See further reading by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang below.)

Diem Marchand-Lafortune, who created an intensive two-day workshop called “Decolonizing the Heart,” describes decolonization as “a process” that guides us to look, with a critical eye, at the history of North America and its power structures, including economies and governments, which “have been formative in developing one’s own and one’s ancestors’ worldview.” It requires “working to dismantle and transform one’s way of seeing and being in the world,” and that means unlearning principles that we may take for granted. For instance, this could include analyzing our business practices and offering up products and services as gifts to people in need rather than expecting money for them.

Marchand-Lafortune, a Cree-Métis and Jewish woman who was adopted and raised by an Acadian/Mi’kmaq father and Scottish mother, says she synthesized and “indigenized” 40 years of knowledge, life experience, philosophy, psychoanalysis and practice in negotiations and law school within the two-days of teachings. The program is not a 101 on Indigenous issues. It includes complex ideas. Marchand-Lafortune warns that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who feel invested in exploring decolonization in more depth should be prepared for “hard work and self-examination.”

One goal of the workshop is “to understand oneself better so that one can interact with other people in a more healthy way,” she says. “I’ve put all these disparate things together that allow people to learn we can’t reconcile with other people till we reconcile with ourselves.”

I began to learn about decolonization when I was doing my Masters of Social Work at the University of Toronto through academic readings, experiential re-enactments of colonization, and cultural competency training. However, I felt my education on Indigenous issues was insufficient, especially following a poorly facilitated class discussion on the findings of “cultural genocide” from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (see further reading below). Students were upset and complained to the administration. Seeing the harm social workers have caused and continue to cause Indigenous people prompted me to take a class on building Jewish-Indigenous relationships at the Lishma Jewish Learning Project.

I heard about the Decolonizing the Heart workshop from a fellow student in my master’s program. Monica Henriques is a social worker of Dutch and Jamaican ancestry who took the workshop and became Marchand-Lafortune’s executive assistant.

The workshop was a lot for me to take in. I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the ideas floating around in my head while simultaneously trying to remember how to put the tools into action. Undoing nearly 35 years of colonial education, changing deep-rooted emotional reactions, and relating to others in new ways may take me more time and practice. However, the experience left me with a great deal to think about.

Decolonizing the Heart Workshop participants–photo by Carmelle Wolfson

About a dozen people attended day one of the workshop at the Toronto United Mennonite Church in Toronto’s east end, including educators, non-profit professionals, writers, social workers, and religious professionals. The workshop integrated seemingly disparate topics throughout, including traditional Indigenous teachings, anti-oppression practices, conflict resolution strategies, and object relations theory approach to human development. It involved lectures, group discussions, experiential activities, visual mapping of individual ancestry, personal reflective writing, role-playing exercises, and video re-enactments. A second day was added to allow more time to cover the expansive material and practice role-play exercises.

On the second day, we simulated a variety of scenarios in which we responded to racist remarks. In one role play that took place at a liquor store, a customer suggests to the cashier that she shouldn’t serve Indigenous people and uses an offensive racial slur. The workshop teaches tools to guide us in identifying what may have happened in our past to trigger our emotional reactions to the situation, and for bystanders to take a few moments before acknowledging the harmful comment so that we can “call in” with compassion for the person causing the harm, trying to empathize and understand that person’s motivation, rather than “call out” the harmful comment through shaming and blaming. As the type of person who tends to freeze up in conflict situations, I have a hard time finding the right words to speak up. In one role play, the bystander asks, “What did you mean by that?” The customer says that Indigenous people are prone to alcoholism and wants to protect them. The bystander then provides information found on their phone’s web browser on alcohol rates among Indigenous populations in Canada. When the discussion wraps up, the Indigenous customers jokingly suggest the customer making the racist comment might pick up the tab at a nearby cafe–in exchange for conversation and a reading list to deepen the learning.

The workshop led me to reflect on standard practices in health and mental health care that I learned during my master’s. For instance, the Medicine Wheel includes four sections that represent the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical realms of each person. Well-being is feeling balanced in these four areas. Within health care and mental health institutions, the spiritual component of healing is usually missing. Though it may sound simple, finding that sweet spot where mind, body, heart, and soul are aligned is anything but simple. In this way, traditional Indigenous teachings hold the knowledge that Western society is lacking.

The workshop also reminded me of how important relationships are to our continued survival. This includes our relationship to other people, the natural environment, and ourselves. Indigenous societies lived on the land, co-existing with plants, animals, and their natural environments long before Europeans colonized and settled North America. Living in Toronto, I rarely have the chance to connect with nature, and I do not need to think about how the food I buy in the store is cultivated. I was also raised to compete with others for limited resources and taught to be independent and self-sufficient, ideals upheld by capitalism. However, Marchand-Lafortune explains the importance of collaboration with others and building strong ongoing relationships with the people around us.

This is the fundamental question that arose for me after attending this two-day workshop: Do you want to participate in colonization and colonial practices or do you want true change? When decolonizing the heart, you may never feel like you’re getting it right, but if you are not grappling with difficult questions, then you’re probably getting it wrong.

Marchand-Lafortune offers this analogy: “It’s really hard to be a feminist if you start acting like entrepreneurs that are in the capitalist paradigm—competition, aggression, all that stuff.” Put yet another way: though people may crave sugar, we don’t need it so why not consider what is driving that craving for sugar? She suggests focusing on meeting needs rather than creating businesses that are feeding “false needs.”

The Heart in Practice

The workshop provoked months of contemplation on decolonizing the heart. What does this look like in practice? For me, that process looked something like this while writing this article:

1. Acknowledging my power and privilege as the writer crafting this story and asking critical questions. Why am I, as a white settler journalist, believed to be an expert on decolonization after attending one workshop? Whose voices are heard and whose are not? Who is given credit for this knowledge, who is benefiting from it and in what ways (financial gain, prestige)? Why are Indigenous writers reporting on Indigenous issues rarely published?

2. Engaging in ongoing conversations with the editor, publisher, and workshop facilitators while trying to understand the motivations and needs of each one. Prioritizing relationships, by allowing time for these conversations, rather than being rigid and guided by speed and productivity.

3. Identifying my emotions when they arise (anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness) and asking which unmet need each feeling is connected to. Taking the time I need to do something to dampen these emotions before re-engaging in discussions.

4. Showing up to retake the workshop a second time even though I felt exhausted and overwhelmed by the start and end of the day. Offering to help make coffee after arriving and staying after it ended to clean up.

5. Asking for advice from friends and doing additional reading on the topic. Then giving credit to those involved in my creative process at the end of this article.

6. Connecting with the spiritual traditions of my ancestors in a way that is meaningful to me.

7. Rewriting this entire article while incorporating what I learned in steps one through five.

With files from Diem Marchand-Lafortune, Monica Henriques, freygl gertsovski, and Emily Green.


Further Reading and Resources

KAIROS Blanket Exercise

Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012)

Canada grapples with a charge of ‘genocide.’ For indigenous people, there’s no debate by Alicia Elliott, Washington Post (June 2019)

Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961)

Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different World is Possible, Edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2007)

The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy, Edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2018)


This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startuphere Toronto!

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