Decolonial Fashion Lament and the Call to Action*

Photo taken by Sandra Niessen, Indigenous gloves from Alberta, Canada.

As a Canadian, as a citizen of the world, as a person who went to school beside a Residential School, as an anthropologist, as a sentient person with a heart and social responsibility, I am feeling the pain of the indescribable discovery of so many unmarked indigenous children’s graves in Kamloops British Columbia.  

The remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves found outside Canada’s largest Residential School. The First Nations children were abducted from their homes and subjected to abuse, hunger and neglect at the residential schools. An estimated 150,000 children attended these schools across the country and thousands died there. The precise number will never be known. The residential school system, a collaboration between Government and Churches, was set up to educate, convert, and assimilate the indigenous population.

I feel the pain of this discovery increasingly intensely. It was institutional murder: planned, condoned and  silenced. The schools were a form of genocide. If you think about this long enough, it is unbearable. And the indigenous peoples of Canada have had to bear this knowledge for so long. It has been denied, misunderstood and ignored. Many reactions to the news of the unmarked graves also constitute denial. Such violence is excruciating to think; denial is an escape route. But we are learning, with dread and regret, that these will not be the only covered-up graves that will come to light. It is only the beginning of the discoveries. People are talking about the tip of the iceberg. The symptom of a much larger, red pool.

The discovery of the graves in Kamloops is a confrontation with “coloniality.”

The confrontation is hard. It is also necessary. This is what ‘decolonizing’ is about: confronting ourselves with the pain of coloniality. Exposing what has been erased. Airing the facts. Acknowledging the facts. Letting the silence turn into voices. Listening with compassion and empathy. Only this can open the door to repair, restitution, solidarity. This is the only true escape route, the only way to put the past behind us. Because otherwise it will live on, and the wrongs will continue to compound. Facilitating the silence is on-going complicity. 

What, you may ask, does this have to do with decolonizing fashion? 

I notice that many of the images used to depict the Kamloops discovery utilize the imagery of  dress: photos of those children before and after their attendance at the schools. The ‘befores’ are indigenous dress, the ‘afters’ are Western dress. 

It is no surprise, no secret, that Western dress was used as a primary image of ‘civilization’. This was done throughout the world; it is one of the hallmarks of colonialism. Dress is perhaps the most obvious symbol of cultural difference. Suppression of indigenous dress is not unlike the suppression of indigenous languages. At the Canadian residential schools both were forbidden. The children were alienated from their cultural roots by having these two things, both so intimate to a person’s identity, stigmatized and forbidden. ‘Fashion’ was deployed as a tool of suppression, denial, silencing, denigration of authenticity, coloniality. It was a way to ‘civilize’ the ‘savages’ – and there was even the hubris that clothing them in Western garb was a favour to them.

Many of the current memorials and vigils to the children involve items of indigenous dress: moccasins for them, and people wearing ceremonial garb. Indigenous dress is being used to extoll the cultural identity of those little ones, to restore them to their culture. Finally they are able to return home after having been torn away, often at gunpoint, so long ago. 

There are other responses on social media. One that hits home hardest for me, who has had a heartfelt need to abjectly apologize, is the reminder that these atrocities do not live in the past, but continue today in numerous forms. The struggle of Canada’s indigenous peoples is not over, not by a long shot. It continues in the form of trying to block oil pipelines from crossing their lands, of motivating the government to clean up their water poisoned by industry, of trying to obtain social and physical space to practice their culture, and airspace to speak their truths, break silences and recover their past. The list is long.  And it is also related to fashion. 

In a recent publication I pointed out that fashion not only feeds off intersecting sacrifice zones, but constructs its own specific sacrifice zone. ‘Sacrifice Zones’ are areas of the earth’s surface deemed expendable for the sake of profits for the few. Fashion is implicated in oil pipelines, poisoned water, land confiscation and soil degradation, all of which are linked in one way or another to industrial fashion production. Fashion practices are implicated in the the silencing of indigenous culture and the erosion of indigenous pride. The social hierarchy that fashion displays also carries messages about racial discrimination. Indigenous dress is another sacrifice zone of fashion — witness its almost complete erasure from ‘fashion studies’.

There is a variant of ‘residential schools’ that has grown up in association with fashion production. They are called ‘Factory Schools’ (a petition against them is embedded in the link) where children are abused and their cultures obliterated. The misery that we all regret relative to Kamloops is on-going in the world. We are being told time and again by indigenous peoples that they don’t need pity or apologies for what occurred in Kamloops (and by implication other sacrifice zones as well). They need solidarity to remove the policies and barriers that prevent them from flourishing. We need to stand with them to demand social justice.

Decolonial fashion praxis has extensive scope. It is not restricted to the work of designers and the recognition of their creations. It also pertains to the erasures and sacrifice zones implicated in fashion production and practice. Including the expendable little bodies dumped into the Kamloops graves.

*Article was originally published on Batak Textiles the blog of Sandra Niessen.

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