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‘Proud to wear it’: PhD student earns Trudeau foundation grant to study Indigenous clothing

The question of what to wear has earned Riley Kucheran, a member of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, formally known as the Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation, Ont., a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholarship. The PhD student at Ryerson University is studying the impact of colonization on Indigenous clothing.

Riley Kucheran, a member of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, formally known as the Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation, Ont., has earned a 2019 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholarship. (Red Works Photography )

The question of what to wear has earned Riley Kucheran, a member of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, formerly known as the Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation, Ont., a 2019 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholarship.

“It’s really an incredible honour, and I’m very grateful,” said the doctoral student at Ryerson University in Toronto, who is examining the effects of colonization on Indigenous clothing.

Kucheran’s research shows that almost “immediately upon contact”  with Europeans, traditional clothing starts to changes, even being used “as a weapon in the colonization process,” he said.

‘Stripping away’ clothing, stripping identity

“For example, in the residential schools, traditional clothing was taken away from the children and the kids were forced to wear more Western clothes – suits or corset and things like that – and that was just part of the assimilation process, this literal stripping away of our clothing, so in that process I think a lot of our own traditional Indigenous design was also taken away.”

Kucheran said he is interested in bringing back traditional designs.

The foundation grant will help cover his tuition and research costs as well as provide a travel allowance, so he can travel across Canada and gather information from a variety of Indigenous designers and clothing experts about the kind of supports they need and where they see the industry going in the future.

Indigenous design ‘sustainable’

“The fashion industry is so powerful, we all participate in fashion, we all wear clothing, but it’s really destroying the planet. It’s the number two polluting industry. It’s really doing a lot of damage, textile-waste for example is everywhere. But Indigenous design is inherently sustainable, both socially and environmentally, ” Kucheran said.

In mainstream fashion, clothes are mass-produced and there is little connection between the designer, the manufacturer and the consumer.

But with Indigenous design, because it is rooted in community, said Kucheran, “you know every single person.”

“You know the hunter who caught it, or the trapper. You know the hide tanner. You know the beadwork artist. You have a personal and intimate relationship with every single step and every single person who touched that clothing so you can then make sure that they’re getting paid fair wages or that the hunters are knowledgeable enough and respectful enough to not overhunt. That’s the kind of difference you get with Indigenous design.”

Identify where it comes from 

Riley Kucheran is a doctoral student from Northwestern Ontario who’s recently won a prestigious honour. His field of study is the effect of colonization on indegenous clothing. 7:00

Kucheran also believes his research can shed light on the cultural appropriation debate, which “has been a double-edge sword. Yes, it’s brought awareness to Indigenous design but also now people are afraid to wear Indigenous items because they worry people are going to call them out.”

What matters, said Kucheran, is where the clothing comes from. Be cautious when buying an Indigenous-themed item at a chain store, “but if you can identify where it comes from, you know the artist, you know who made it.. be proud to wear it!”

According to its website, the foundation selected 20 Canadian PhD students, “who are hungry to play a leadership role in their communities and help inspire positive change. This year’s recipients were chosen based on their compelling research that contributes to one or more of the Foundation’s four themes. They will embark on a three-year journey that will foster their development as leaders and offer critical reflection on the subject of Power & Knowledge.”

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