Skip to content

Retaining Inuit culture is more than sentimental

Luxury branding for Indigenous art is needed

One of the goals of Ilitaqsiniq’s Qitsiriniq and Kammiurniq program in Arviat last fall was making sure traditional skills are passed on to new generations.

Keeping Inuit culture thriving within the North is important on its own, but what it also has the power to do is influence Canadian culture and spur economic development for Inuit.

You don’t need to look far for the kind of long-term results these programs can deliver: Rankin Inlet’s own Victoria’s Arctic Fashion (VAF) was inspired by a miqqut program almost a decade ago.

Indigenous fashion and art is still underappreciated in Canada and beyond, but that tide is rapidly turning.

Manitobah Mukluks made it on to The Globe and Mail’s Top Growing Companies list for 2021, with three-year revenue growth of 50 per cent. They are now pushing expansion into the United States.

Anyone who frequents social media can see that the demand for beadwork and Indigenous fashion far outweighs the supply. Raffle opportunities are gobbled up, and artists often have to turn potential customers away because they don’t have time to complete custom orders.

That supply imbalance is one of the biggest challenges for Indigenous artists: much of the appeal of their work is in the handmade nature of it, so turning it into a production line like Manitobah Mukluks (MM) isn’t necessarily feasible or desirable.

The only other options are charging a high enough price that makes the time investment pay off to create kamiks or other works of art, or establishing a brand identity and lending one’s designs to a production house like MM.

What the industry at large needs is a societal shift to viewing Indigenous art and fashion not just as homemade crafts, but as luxury products. That shift is already happening, helped by brands like VAF and MM, but it has a much longer way to go before the industry truly takes off.

The iceberg of Canadians’ awareness of Indigenous beauty is only just breaching. Many Canadians barely knew Inuit and First Nations were not the same group of people 10 years ago, and now we have an Inuk Governor General.

Though the news of residential school grave sites last year was terrible to learn, the way it dominated national headlines shows that eyes are finally turning to a part of the country that was too often ignored before.

Indigenous culture is increasingly being seen as more than a historical interest, but as a truly special and alluring feature of this country, something that is both quintessentially Canadian and attractively different.

Not only is this an economic opportunity, but fashion and art shape culture themselves. Nunavut is the fastest-growing jurisdiction in the country, and Inuit’s role in the country will only be increasing. By retaining and celebrating their own culture, they can influence Canada’s.

All the pieces are there for Inuit fashion to take off as a luxury product, but what it needs is more eyes.

In the meantime, passing on Elders’ skills to the new generations is critical for more than the capitalist ambitions. Holding on to these cultural skills has value far beyond any dollar figures.

Those who take the time and provide the investments to make these programs happen – from the Elder instructors to the staff behind the scenes writing proposals – should be commended. They are playing a crucial role in something that will have impact far beyond the programs themselves.