Fashion, as expressed through individual style, tells the world who you are and what you can do. It conveys status, knowledge, relationship, and connection. Dene style has changed significantly in the years since first contact with Europeans, and can be expressed in many ways, but its importance in communicating who we are as individuals and as a community remains.
Pre-contact, everything Dene people wore came from the land and was made by hand. We were entirely clothed by our environment and our own skill and artistry. Hides, furs, and decorative elements such as quills, seeds, shells, and natural dyes all came from the land. Sophisticated techniques for processing hides were developed over millennia, and handed down generation to generation. Clothing was highly functional – designed for the environment and the daily routines of life on the land – but also decorative, often with elements that combine the two. Fringes, for example, remain a stylish choice today, but also provide quick access to a strip of hide that can be used to lash things together.
Adornment is an important part of Indigenous cultures, and this has always been true for Dene as well. From tattooing on the body to jewellery and accessories representing wealth, position, stage of life, and personal skill, we dressed to thrive and demonstrate our mastery. Groups with greater wealth of access to land had more resources to draw from, and those with trading connections were able to import materials from other regions. The finest displays of beautiful clothing and adornment were reserved for those in elevated social positions, or for the most talented makers and those lucky enough to benefit from their skill. Wearing the best clothes and accessories communicated power and position.
As Indigenous people in Canada fight for self-determination, how we present ourselves to the world is always a political statement even when it’s not an active choice.
Museums around the world are filled with examples of Dene style. Clothing, tools, jewellery, bags, and shoes were collected and archived for centuries. These collections show how styles have changed over the years, and have been influenced through contact with other peoples and cultures. Most early visitors to Denendeh wore uniforms; traders, RCMP, the military, the church. Their uniforms were intended to represent their position and privilege. These visitors came to impose power and authority upon Dene people, and they dressed accordingly.
Archival examples show the incorporation of uniform-inspired elements into traditional clothing post-contact, for example epaulettes and military collars on moosehide jackets. Power dressing by those in leadership was already in practice, so it’s unsurprising that the styles worn by these visitors were adopted by the Dene. More than just a design choice, I believe this was a political statement, a visual response to the imposition of new authority structures. As the adage goes, if you want to be the boss, you should dress like the boss.
One of the more well-known examples of such a political Dene fashion statement is that of Chief Jimmy Bruneau, the Tlicho leader who signed Treaty 11 in 1922. Photos show him smartly dressed in a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons and trim – somewhat like a captain’s jacket – accessorized with a wide-brimmed hat and his ubiquitous tobacco pipe. There is nothing traditional about the jacket – it is a settler-style article of clothing, but one that conveys an elevated position and authority.
Chief Jimmy Bruneau at Behchoko (then Fort Rae). NWT Archives/Buffum family fonds/N-1986-006: 0245
The jacket was provided for Chief Bruneau by the government, and the terms of the agreement signed that day required that they provide him with a new one every three years. The signing of the treaty, meant to be an agreement between equals, was thus underscored by the chief’s insistence on equality even in the apparel worn by the signatories. This was a man who understood that style is about much more than just aesthetic choices.
When the Tlicho Agreement was signed in 2003, the signing chiefs wore replicas of Chief Bruneau’s jacket. These versions, however, were made by Tlicho women to honour their leaders and the occasion. Symbolically, the jackets carried the post-contact political history into this new era of self-government, reclaiming the narrative and making it their own. Joseph Kochon, a director with the Sahtu Secretariat Inc., expressed this well during a joint meeting with the Sahtu Dene Council a few years ago. “We are nomadic people, in our life and in our leadership. We can be on the land one day, and in a boardroom in Toronto the next. And we don’t need to change our clothes in between – what you see is what you get.”
So what’s Dene style in an era of self-government, cultural revitalization, and truth and reconciliation? As Indigenous people in Canada fight for self-determination, how we present ourselves to the world is always a political statement even when it’s not an active choice. We can be the best-dressed person in the room, the most conservative, the most bold, or the most just DGAF, and it will always communicate something about who we are and what we stand for.
Melaw Nakehk’o wearing Valentino/Belcourt dress at the premiere of The Revenant. Alamy Stock Photo by WENN
When The Revenant had its Hollywood premiere, Melaw Nakehk’o needed a red carpet outfit. This was about much more than a pretty dress. Her character in the film is an Indigenous woman subjected to physical and sexual violence at the hands of non-Indigenous men. The political narrative of the character, the film’s handling of the storyline, and Melaw’s own background in social activism, called for styling choices with something to say. But holding your own in Hollywood demands high fashion, and that requires connections or a couture budget. Enter the modern-day version of a trading network and access to resources; social media. Dene people are oral historians. We’re a culture of artists and storytellers, which is why the tech-savvy amongst us are so into social media; it’s a place to share knowledge and stories, and you can do both through images or oral tradition.
Christi Belcourt, a renowned Metis artist and prolific social media presence, had collaborated with the House of Valentino, one of Italy’s foremost fashion houses, to produce a couture collection inspired by her painting “Water Song.” Christi and Melaw knew each other through Walking With Our Sisters, the exhibit honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women. Would Christi be able to connect Melaw with Valentino?
Indeed she would. Would Valentino be willing to loan a couture piece for Melaw’s red carpet debut? They’d be delighted. Would I get to write the emails arranging all of this? Yes I sure would, and as a lifelong fashion NERD I have to tell you that they were among the most exciting emails I’ve ever drafted.
So, the outfit is sorted. Four dress options – three gowns and a wildcard choice – and shoes are being delivered to the Valentino store on Rodeo Drive, where Melaw will present herself for a fitting. Now for hair, makeup, and accessories.
Dene fashion throughout history is produced by supportive groups of women. We sew together. We share patterns. We share techniques. We lovingly compete to produce the best work that we can, pushing each other to constantly elevate our skills. Melaw’s red carpet look was the product of just such a network, only this community of women worked remotely via Instagram to put together styling and accessories with input from Dene ladies in Yellowknife, Toronto, and Santa Fe.
We chose hairstyles and makeup artists. We sourced fine jewelry from New Mexico-based Indigenous artist Keri Ataumbi. We booked appointments and scouted locations. We worked around the clock, no kidding, for days. We did it because we love Melaw, and because we love fashion, and because we knew that the significance of the moment was so much bigger than any of those things – because she is Dene, and Dene style is political.
Melaw owned that red carpet. She wore the wildcard dress – a short, caped, fringed suede dress covered in beads and appliqued leather flowers – which fit her so perfectly that no alterations were required and the Valentino staff joked that it must have been made for her. She was included on national best-dressed lists. Images of her blanketed social media, and she used that spotlight to talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women, cultural appropriation, and the importance of positive and accurate representation of Indigenous peoples in mainstream media. We wept with pride.
Tiffany Ayalik (wearing Tishna Marlowe) and Grey Gritt of Quantum Tangle on the red carpet for the 2017 Juno Awards. Alamy Stock Photo by REUTERS
On a more recent red carpet, Denesoline designer Tishna Marlowe dressed three northern Indigenous women for the 2017 Juno Awards. Leela Gilday, Tanya Tagaq, and Tiffany Ayalik – presenter, performer, and winner at the ceremony, respectively – chose custom designs that showcased their cultures, honoured missing and murdered Indigenous women, balanced modernity and tradition, and symbolically carried their families with them for the evening. This complexity is central to Tishna’s work through her label Six Red Beads.
Modern Dene style does this on a smaller scale every day. Bringing together our lives on the land and our lives in urban and technology-influenced environments, our fashion choices make a statement about how we are choosing to live, the work we are choosing to do, and the priorities we are choosing to uphold. Whether it’s handmade slippers or apparel, beaded and embroidered embellishments, furs and hides we’ve learned to tan for ourselves, or elements that come from or are inspired by the land – all are carefully incorporated with contemporary apparel for a balance that is functional and commanding, both on the land and in the boardroom. It communicates a reclaiming not only of culture, but of freedom and mobility. Dene style says we don’t just belong in any room we choose, we might also be the best dressed people in it.