In the era of reconciliation, more conversations are being had about what is — and isn’t — an acceptable way for non-Indigenous people to show support for Indigenous artists.
Indigenous art is increasingly being copied, reproduced or stolen — earlier this year charges were laid in an alleged art fraud ring against a group accused of making and selling pieces of art under the name of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau.
It’s an issue Sen. Patricia Bovey has raised in the House of Commons advocating for updates to copyright laws to further protect authentic Indigenous art.
Bovey told Global News that the issue is complex and won’t be solved by one department. “I am concerned about artists having means of claiming their own intellectual rights … (and that) very few of them are in a position to be able to fight for their intellectual rights legally.”
She’s looking into things like potential funds to support artists to claim copyright; a way to authenticate work before it leaves the studio; and whether Canada should adopt acts from the United States — like the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
“I can’t bear the thought of an artist working laboriously for years to develop their art form and their imagery and their iconography to have it stolen and fabricated and plastic somewhere else in the world,” said Bovey.
Who can wear Indigenous art, beadwork?
But the conversation doesn’t just involve work by big names. With questions around authenticity rising, many non-Indigenous folks have begun to tread carefully and question where to buy or whether they should be buying.
Indigenous artists, especially beadworkers, say they’re regularly asked these questions.
“My response is always ‘Absolutely, it’s OK,'” said Nicole Geary a registered member of Sahtu Dene and Métis of Norman Wells and the artist behind Beaded Legacy.
“One of the biggest goals of colonization was to completely wipe out Indigenous culture so whenever I see someone — whether they’re an Indigenous person or not — wearing beaded jewelry it’s a win.”
“It (shows) Indigenous culture is alive, it is thriving and it is all around us; it’s a big statement to our survival and resiliency.”
Rebekah Wade agrees, she’s the artist behind Moccasin Mama, a member of Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and creates custom beaded moccasins.
“If you have an appreciation for it and you come at it from a respectful place wanting to support Indigenous business and Indigenous people, I think you should buy it,” she said. “I don’t put my stuff up for sale if I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous people.”
“The point is to share our work, share our creations and teach people about Indigenous experiences today,” adds Wade. “We want to be included in these contemporary conversations about art and fashion.”
Modeste Zankpe started beading as a way of grounding themselves, they’re from Esk’etemc First Nation and the artist behind Monday May Jewelry.
Zankpe said they feel like artists have a similar script, “just make sure you’re buying from actual Indigenous folks,” they said.
The key to wearing Indigenous designs is to make sure they’re created by actual Indigenous designers.
Lauren Swan, a band member from Cold Lake First Nation, runs Niso Makers with her sister. She said “most beadwork artists will share what community they’re from … look for that and ask the right questions.”
As a mixed person, Geary said it was initially tough to take her work online, “I had some people online questioning my identity, which on the topic of the authentic Indigenous art is a really important question to ask,” she said.
Adding, “it’s a good thing to ask these questions, and I’m now grateful to be asked these questions because it means people are being more mindful and wanting to ensure they’re purchasing authentically made Indigenous artwork.“
Geary hopes buyers will get comfortable asking questions, but said its important to keep in mind what questions you’re asking.
“You shouldn’t ask for a photo of someone’s status card, but asking what community are you from? Where is your traditional territory? Can you tell me about your connections there? That kind of thing I think is super healthy,” she said.
“Just stating that you’re Indigenous without stating what nation you’re from or what community you belong can be a bit of a red flag.”
Zankpe says especially in light of many folks pretending to be Indigenous, it’s important to ask these questions.
“If I were looking for Indigenous beadwork, I would be checking out their socials and make sure they list what nation and community they’re connected to.”
Buying authentic Indigenous work helps support Indigenous communities, people and ensure economic self-sufficiency.
“(Our) artwork carries such deep value and meaning that can never be mimicked or replaced,” adds Geary.
“These works of art are the result of resilience and survival through attempted genocide and erasure … when people try to recreate something similar, it’s just disrespectful to everything Indigenous Peoples had to go through to make sure their culture, traditions and ways are carried on for generations.”
Not 'an act of performative allyship'
While artists and beaders want you to buy their work, there are things to consider in addition to ensuring what you’re buying is authentic.
One of those things is purpose, Geary said “I don’t believe that beaded earrings should be an act of performative allyship to wear on Indigenous Peoples Day or Orange Shirt Day … beadwork is for 365 days of the year.”
Adding, “Whenever anybody compliments their earrings or asks about their earrings, you know, support the Indigenous artist by sharing who they are while encouraging others to shop Indigenous.”
In addition to helping ensure authenticity, knowing who made it will help the wearer feel more confident, said Wade.
“Knowing (the artist has) a connection to their community and their culture, that’s helpful because I know that they’re coming at it from a authentic place, a place of reconnection, a place of community understanding, of love for their culture,” she said. “It’s a very complicated and a touchy thing because for a long time it was illegal for us to wear our culture, to practice our culture, to do all of these things that are done so widely now … and as much as we want to share our work with other people who are non-Indigenous, seeing people who are non-Indigenous create our designs … can be very hard.”
“There isn’t a shortage of Indigenous beaders, and it’s not that hard to look for them,” said Wade. “If you’re shopping, just make sure you’re doing a little bit of homework.“