Season 4, Episode 1: Runways and reconciliation: how classroom-based projects can shape their communities
In this first episode of the new season, we discuss how Otahpiaaki, a week in Calgary dedicated to Indigenous fashion and design, is driving the conversation about reconciliation and how Indigenous-led entrepreneurship created a space for creativity and passion. Spirit River Striped Wolf, an MRU policy studies student, and Patti Derbyshire, Associate Professor in Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation, are both co-founders of Otahpiaaki. They walk us through how deeply the project’s roots really go and what its success has meant for the communities involved.
To learn more about Otahpiaaki, check out their website.
Meg Wilcox: I’m Meg Wilcox and this is Teaching Strides—MRU faculty daring greatly. In this episode: how fashion can fuel resistance reconciliation and entrepreneurship.
The word “Otapiaaki” is a Blackfoot term for the moment the vamp and moccasin are sewn together, and it’s this togetherness that the project hopes to promote. When Spirit River Striped Wolf and Patti Derbeyshire first got started with the project, it was in a Mount Royal classroom. But today we’ll talk about how Otapiaaki fashionweek has expanded beyond a club at the Bissett School of Business and is now a space for talented Indigenous creators to show off their work and what reconciliation really means.
MW: Patti, Spirit, thank you so much for joining me.
Patti Derbyshire: Great to be here.
Spirit River Striped Wolf: Yeah, thanks for having us.
MW: So Otahpiaaki is coming up very shortly, for someone who maybe has never heard of it before, how would you describe the program?
PD: So Otahpiaaki began as a classroom project and really quickly became a social innovation movement. Most folks know us for Indigenous beauty, fashion and design week, which happens every fall.
So, this year we go November 5th through 9th. And during that week, we invite Indigenous designers and creatives to Mokinstis. And we put up a series of workshops and they can, be on everything from traditional beading and embroidery through to, we’re doing digital sash making this, this year with John Corvette. And then our showcases—so this year on Friday night, um, our fashion showcases and we put up our first four designers and that’ll be with the Calgary Philharmonic orchestra and Jeremy Dutcher.
And so it’s so exciting for us because this is the year of Indigenous language. So to be co-presenting with Jeremy Dutcher who essentially revived his language and he is a celebrated Polaris-winning and Juno-winning musician around that language project. And so what we’ve done is curate the designers with that project.
And then on Saturday night we’ve got a dozen more designers from treaty seven, treaty eight, treaty six. We’ve got a couple of special guests coming in from nations the U.S., and that’s down at our new central library. So we’re looking at about 500 people that night. And if you think of a runway in or New York or France or anything like that Otapiaaki puts on that kind of showcase and these designers come with that caliber of work.
MW: So you mentioned that this started as a classroom project obviously what you’ve described is much bigger. What was the original classroom project?
PD: Well, Justin Lewis, who is you know, kind of a long-time friend to this project runs a label called Section 35, so he’s based in Vancouver, but he came from [unknown] so kind of mid province here, Cree community.
And he came in and did a social innovation presentation. And it’s actually become a piece of research that I’ve gone deep on now, but I’ll talk a bit more about that later.
But Justin really, really inspired this group of students, by helping them understand that Indigenous design and fashion and producing street wear, which is what he does, is so important to indigenous youth at this point in time, that they can see themselves in their own clothing. They can see themselves in their own language and that design elements really reflect who they are.
And this era that we’re in right now around truth and reconciliation. So fashion in the context of Section 35 is about seeking truth and literally about young people wearing those truths.
MW: And so Spirit, when did you come in on this project?
SR: Yeah so I came in kind of as the project was starting, Patti came to me and talked to me about trying to figure out a name for the project. There are some words that I kind of knew, some words instead of thinking about, I know there are some terms in regards to like, you know, designing clothes and things like that. And I was just kind of, you know, skimming through the Blackfoot dictionary.
And I found this word called Otahpiaaki. And so we talked about how that’s analogous to reconciliation and coming together and connection. And so I, as a student in policy studies who is already working with Patti on another project called “Elder in the Making,” where creating an academic lesson plans for kindergarten to grade 12. And that was kind of wrapping up. And then this new idea of Otahpiaaki kind of came in and I had a huge interest in it because in my degree in policy studies is a big part of it is economics and political science and legal studies.
So for me it was really important to look at economic growth within Indigenous communities. How can this project best impact the Indigenous community? So I did a little bit of research in terms of how trauma can be a barrier to entrepreneurship.
I’ve worked in my community and outside of my community since I was in middle school and I’ve worked on a range of projects with Indigenous people. So I already had an idea of kind of the barriers to these kinds of projects and the barrier for supporting Indigenous workers and families. So I was really excited to be able to kind of work deeper on these issues, which is what I’ve wanted to do with my degree since the very beginning anyways.
So it was just a fun way of engaging economics and entrepreneurship and trauma, which I think are two things that aren’t really connected as much in my degree and in economics to begin with.
MW: And so for you, it wasn’t necessarily a fashion interest that’s happened to be the topic where you could explore all of these issues. Is there anything as you’ve been doing your research that’s really surprised you or stuck with you?
SR: Yeah, I think there’s so many things. Like it’s been about three years and I kind of looked at it like a puzzle. Like I felt like I knew some of these pieces and was trying to put them together. Some of the amazing things that really surprised me and made me really think about my own life is trust and connection. And a lot of, you know, political scientists have come out with these terms of how we have to connect trust to economic development.
And for me, it was really important to look further into the barriers of entrepreneurship for Indigenous people. And it really, it really kind of became clear to me that trust and connection were one of the biggest casualties during the assimilation process of Indigenous people. And that is one of the largest barriers for growth in Indigenous communities. One thing that I learned on this project was that ethno-cultural minority groups thrive and support themselves in a predominantly white society through entrepreneurship. That entrepreneurship is actually a coping mechanism to exclusion from the labor market. And so for me, it was looking at these other minority groups and Indigenous folks and seeing what the difference was here where ethno-cultural minority groups contribute billions of dollars to the economy.
And for Indigenous people, what we know is that there’s billions of dollars that just aren’t being pumped into the economy. And when document we look at is how there’s $27 billion that is potential GDP from Indigenous workers. And so for me, I knew growing up what those barriers were from my own lived experience, but it was also using my degree to kind of translate that. And to write something in an academic kind of context that would help explain how trust and trauma certain things like intergenerational trauma and how that affects it. And for me, one of the other biggest surprises was disciplinary styles. So for me, I always hear things about like how intergenerational trauma, you know, it’s the cause.
Then for me, I think that I really prefer to look at facts and statistics and I think that’s why I went into my degree to begin with. So for me it was like “hey, that’s a little bit whimsical.” When we looked at economics, we look at models, we look at, you know, numbers and we looked at equations. How can we account for that? Right? For me it was looking at how, we have to look at how humans talk to ourselves when we’re creating something. And one of the most vulnerable things that a human could do is create something and showcase it to the world, which is what we’re asking our designers to do, right? That’s what being an entrepreneur is. And to be a resilient entrepreneur is to be able to have a resilient self. And so for me, it was looking at how a lot of Indigenous people that the intergenerational effects has been, how we talk to ourselves. That in Indigenous communities it was always how your behavior affects the community. But through residential school, school and the Sixties Scoop, a new narrative has really come into our families, which is, you know, “you’re not good enough.” Who do you think you are? You know, disciplinary styles. Like “you’re a bad girl,” or “you’re a bad boy.” And how that has really transformed the narrative that Indigenous people have for themselves and how they view themselves.
You know, one story I always bring about is that when I was coming to university, some of my peers in high school, they’d say, “Spirit, you can go to university, I can’t.” And so there’s this way of thinking on the reserve, which I think is really the root to a lot of issues in Indigenous communities such as addictions and violence and so forth. Because it’s a painful feeling to always be questioning your worth constantly. And humans will find ways to cope with that type of pain. So that’s, you know, it’s such a deep situation. It’s such a deep idea. But for me it was so important when it comes to entrepreneurship and supporting entrepreneurs and kind of diving deeper into how we talk to ourselves and how can we become a resilient entrepreneurs
MW: And looking forward for Otahpiaaki and other research in the future, Spirit, based on the research you’ve done and sort of with the new project coming up, what are you working on now or what are you hoping to expand this research into? Where do you want to take it?
SR: Right now? The fashion show in November, making sure that we have our volunteers and our partnerships doing well and that their relationships are going well and so forth.
For my research side it’s interesting to be able to look a little bit deeper into economic development in macroeconomics. Which I’ve been undertaking within these last couple of semesters and trying to find those models. For me, it’s been trying to find the language and finding the connection to classical economics and Keynesian and economics and trying to see how does something like this work.
How do we integrate Indigenous economics into the broader conversation of economics, which is, like I had mentioned before, it’s such a missing component of economics. It’s usually about developing nations or developed nations like Canada. And there’s just not a lot of room there for Indigenous communities that have been affected and how that works. Yea, and also the other thing too that we’re working on is with Ryerson university. We’re creating a chapter there, so someone that we’ve been working with, Riley Katrin, who is…I think he’s undertaking his PhD. Is that correct?
PD: He is, absolutely.
SR: Yeah. And so he approached us with this project about putting our work and the conversations we’ve been having into a textbook that will be used for students in fashion. So that we can have a deeper conversation about fashion and entrepreneurship and barriers to entrepreneurship for Indigenous entrepreneurs, especially those that are in the fashion and arts. And so that’s definitely one thing that I’ve been looking at for my work as well as this deeper research into economics and so forth.
MW: Wow, well, it sounds like if you want, there’s a whole career there if you really want it to.
SR: Yeah. True.
MW: Thank you so much for joining me you guys.
PD: Thank you.
SR: Thanks for having us.
MW: That was Spirit River Striped Wolf and Patti Derbyshire, co-founders of Otahpiaaki. The fashion week returns from November 5th to 9th. And you can find out more at otahpiaakiweek.com. Teaching strides is produced by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi and me, Meg Wilcox, in conjunction with the Academic Development Center at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. We’re proud to broadcast from the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations, the Métis Nation (Region 3). We look forward to sharing the stories and experiences of the many people who live, learn, and teach in the treaty seven region. You can find us wherever you podcast and at teachingstrides.ca.