There is no shortage of heartbreak and despair in the world on any given day—whether it’s Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine or the recent identification of 14 possible residential school graves sites in Saskatchewan. These identifications with ground-penetrating radar cannot really be called a “discovery” because residential school survivors and their families have been shouting from the rooftops and telling us the grim reality for generations.
Recently, there have been positive signs of change, from the Pope asking to be forgiven to the Hudson’s Bay Company transferring its downtown Winnipeg store back to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization of Manitoba.
Closer to home, there’s a giant glimmer of hope in the form of warrior entrepreneurs and power couple Casey Desjarlais (Nehiyaw/Saulteaux) and Dakota Bear (Nehiyaw). They are two local artists and activists who are designing clothing with messages that will resonate in the hearts and minds of Inuk, First Nations, and Métis people across North America.
Originally their clothing line was a side business. Bear and Desjarlais were busy with speaking engagements, talking to schools, holding workshops, and travelling around teaching traditions learned from their elders. Desjarlais would share things she learned from her kookum (grandmother) about medicine and regalia, while Bear spent time doing creative workshops with youths. When COVID hit, they had to stop traveling and performing, but it gave them an opportunity to focus on their clothing brand.
In 2020 they rebranded their line as Decolonial Clothing Co., teaching themselves everything from graphic design and marketing, to website building. An early design of Sitting Bull speaks to their identities as Indigenous people. Decolonial Clothing allows them to pass on messages, making sure that their visibility as Indigenous people stays strong. It’s a their way of promoting decolonization as their brand grows.
“It’s very powerful—we haven’t seen ourselves,” Desjarlais told the Straight by phone. “Growing up, we haven’t seen ourselves represented in the media or education systems that mould our lives.”
In an interview at their Burnaby workshop, Bear said that their clothing sparks conversation.
“As Indigenous people we are on the forefront of all the world’s catastrophes, such as deforestation and the water crisis,” Bear told the Straight. “Young Indigenous people are fixing those problems, bringing solutions and reclaiming the knowledge of their ancestors.
“Collectively elevating our voice and having it reach the masses is vital because it’s at a time when it is badly needed,” he continued. “Everyone needs to hear that, not just young Indigenous people, but for everyone to feel empowered. To see what we are seeing from an Indigenous perspective—of the way we see the world, and the way that western capitalism has brought us to where we are today.”
Bear and Desjarlais are also keen to give back. They are about to launch Land Back Records and are in the process of building a recording studio above their workshop. It is a space designed by and for Indigenous musicians and youths to create music and art. They say that a percentage of the profits will be reinvested into their nonprofit venture Land Back Society.
The long-term vision is to purchase parcels of land to build healing lodges, water filtration systems, and housing so they can have a safe space for Indigenous people to go and physically reconnect with the land. It will be another way for their music, storytelling, and poetry to continue to amplify their voices.
As mentors, they integrate what they call “warrior entrepreneurship”. Mentees are not just taught simply how to run a business; instead, they learn a warrior-entrepreneurship model, centred around being an anticolonial actor. The goal is to revitalize an Indigenous economy and lift people out of poverty, thereby diminishing the dependency created through colonialism. In this way, these entrepreneurs become mentors, showing young people that they can rebuild their communities while retaining their values.
Bear and Desjarlais know that Indigenous people battle colonial mindsets wherever they go. They’re aware that it takes a lot of courage to become agents of self-determination. They feel that they are building economic power while navigating the land and taking care of the planet.
It is heavy work as partners, parents, mentors, and business owners who take care of their families and community.
“It is important to ground ourselves; we collectively make things easier for each other,” Desjarlais said.
Across Turtle Island, there is a shift happening with young people reclaiming their spirit, names, culture, and languages, and bringing it to a modern world. On every level, young Indigenous people are reclaiming how to live their lives, and to them, it’s a beautiful moment.