Resilience celebrates a culture's identity

Myths and stereotypes have a way of seeping into our perceptions of Aboriginal Peoples, their culture and their background. The University's Native Awareness Week, Feb. 28 to Mar. 4, looks to break those beliefs and present a well-rounded view of aboriginal culture and society.

For Linda Many Guns, a professor in the department of Native American Studies, the best way to present a true glimpse of Aboriginal society is to celebrate the strength and spirit of its people. Her fashion show, The Resilience of Blackfoot Identity in Clothing, looks to do just that.

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This magnificent Bodmer-period style dress is more than 200 years old. It is just one of the pieces to be displayed at the Resilience of Blackfoot Identity in Clothing fashion show, to be held Mar. 1.

"I personally like to blow up myths about Aboriginal people," says Many Guns. "One of the opportunities we have during Native Awareness Week is the chance to demonstrate outside of classroom discussions, what it is to be Aboriginal. It's not just about reserves and issues it's about people, a way of life and a quality of life. The issues are always centred on poverty and that impoverished image. This week we have the opportunity, through this fashion show, to demonstrate a way of life that has quality, colour, skill and integrity."

The resilience of the Blackfoot women's pride in their identity is captured in the clothing they created and is the central theme of the show, featuring dresses created from three distinct eras of Aboriginal history. The pre-contact era is from the early 1800s, followed by the post-reservation era, from 1870 through the early 1900s, to today's modern era. Contemporary designers Carol Mason, Beverly Hungry Wolf and Gerri Many Fingers will all participate in the show, but it's the appearance of Pauline Dempsey's collection that sets this gathering apart.

"I've seen the pieces she has in her closet but I've never actually seen them out on display, and they really are to die for," says Many Guns. "What we'll be seeing will be spectacular. It's an amazing collection of pieces and the fact that they are not going to be shown again makes this quite an honour that their final appearance will be here."

Dempsey is the daughter of Canadian Senator James Gladstone and the wife of noted author Hugh Dempsey. Her collection has been shown all over the world and her husband Hugh is recognized for his scholarly contributions at the Glenbow Museum.

Many Guns says the event will highlight a people that, despite facing hardship, maintained an active and vibrant culture. It's that spirit of resilience that keeps their culture alive today.

"During the post-reservation period of time, the Aboriginal people were sequestered on reserves and not allowed off," says Many Guns. "So they were taking this incredible dressmaking skill and using anything they could get their hands on, and turning out these absolutely beautiful works of art."

Using scraps of recycled fabric, tin cans, beads extracted from lamps and so on, they found a way to express their identity. It's that identity that is constantly under attack today, and one of the reasons Many Guns introduced the fashion show as a teaching tool to her Native American Health class.

"Identity is a core element in Aboriginal cultural revival," says Many Guns. "When that identity is missing, it's often an underlying factor that contributes to some of the problems that are so prevalent in our communities. These are identity issues and this exercise shows pride in that identity."

Her students will run the show itself. They have been entrusted to research the history of the dresses on display, will co-ordinate the models and announce and describe the collections as they are being presented.

"I really wanted to be involved to learn more about Native American culture," says Kaley Woodman, one of the student researchers who will also be an announcer at the show. "This is a new and innovative way to express one
aspect of what defines their culture."

Student Michelle Leafloor adds that by steering away from issues, and instead presenting Aboriginal culture through its people, bridges of understanding can be constructed.

"This fashion show is a display of the uniqueness, beauty, art and design of Native American people, and it's something to be very proud of," she says. "Maybe an event like this can create a deeper understanding for the campus as a whole and a greater sense of belonging for the Native Americans who may be struggling to find their place in today's society."

For a full list of Native Awareness Week events, follow this link.


• The Resilience fashion show is on Tuesday, Mar. 1 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the UHall Atrium.

• Noted Canadian historian/author Hugh Dempsey will lead the student discussions throughout the show.

• Contemporary designer, Gerri Many Fingers, teaches on the Blood Reserve. She'll be bringing a Grade 12 class of students to campus to experience Native Awareness Week. "It's a great opportunity for them to come into the University environment, see other Aboriginal people studying here and that it is a welcoming place for them," says Many Guns.

• Visiting students and designers will be taking a tour of the University Theatre, as well as its wardrobe and costume-making department.

• The U of L Women's Centre is also providing volunteers for the show and Morrison Hershfield Engineering Ltd., along with their Aboriginal company, Sikon, is the presenting sponsor.

• An Indian Taco feast with mint tea and berries will follow the show.

For a look at the February issue of the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.