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Listening, learning, and reflecting: the Indigenous-owned businesses of Waterloo Region

Listening, learning, and reflecting: the Indigenous-owned businesses of Waterloo RegionListening, learning, and reflecting: the Indigenous-owned businesses of Waterloo Region

Hand-crafted jewellery by Indigenous business owner Maddie Resmer (Photo: Little Wolf and the Willow)

by Alex Kinsella | June 21, 2021

The discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former residential school in Kamloops has sparked conversations in communities across Canada. These conversations are opportunities for settlers to listen, learn, and reflect on what it means to be Canadian. 

Whether your family has been on Turtle Island for generations or you’ve recently immigrated and call Canada home, we all have to make an effort to understand the continued impact of colonialism on Indigenous peoples and their communities.

Waterloo Region is situated on the traditional territory of the Anishinabek, Haudenosaunee, and Neutral Peoples and includes the Haldimand Tract, which runs six miles across the Grand River. Today, First Nations, Metis, and other Indigenous peoples not only call this land home – they are building businesses and connecting with settlers and Indigenous peoples across the world.

Mulberry Design

Pandora Cassandra Wilhelm is the owner of Mulberry Design in Linwood. Their mission is creating early language resources that feature traditional dialects of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis languages from across Turtle Island.

Her products are inspired by the Montessori method but focused on traditional languages. “There are currently no resources out there for companies that do that because there are so many different dialects, there’s not a one size fits all,” said Wilhelm. “So everything I make, people provide me with a dialect and it’s customized to their community. It would be the dialect that their children actually speak on reserve.”

Wilhelm is Métis and originally from the Georgian Bay area. There are 12 different documented dialects of Michif, the traditional language of the Métis. “Different dialects are fanned out across the provinces, so it’s very similar to First Nations,” said Wilhelm. “They all are slightly different. Sometimes a slightly different pronunciation or slightly different spelling.” 

Creating these resources is vital in helping Indigenous peoples reconnect with their languages. “They wouldn’t be able to access these resources from a mainstream company like Melissa & Doug,” added WilhelmThey don’t make traditional language products, and they certainly don’t make them on-demand with our different dialects.”

Mulberry Design is making it easier for Indigenous families to use and share their language at home. It’s personal for Wilhelm, too – she hopes to learn more of her language to share with her husband and four children. “I’ve been teaching them what I know,” said Wilhelm. “There’s not a lot of resources so my knowledge of my language is very limited. That’s one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing – I want to bridge that gap, starting small, and then hopefully it catches on and that it can grow.”

Wilhelm is participating in Communitech’s Fierce Founder Uplift program for women-identifying or non-binary founders from underrepresented groups. She’s using the program to work on an app to go along with her physical toys and resources. “We’re trying to develop an app where you would be able to hear the spoken word. It’s an early learning app geared towards kids zero to eight,” added Wilhelm.

Mulberry Design has an online store and a brick-and-mortar storefront in Linwood. Wilhelm has opened their storefront to other local makers to help lift up the maker community. “We do have some Indigenous makers, but it’s also women from the community too. I’ve been lucky to be kind of successful in what I’ve been doing, so we’re just trying to help them get to that next level by sharing the space that we have.”

Little Wolf and The Willow

Understanding the maker and people behind what you buy is always essential – especially when it’s a product that reflects Indigenous peoples or culture. That’s the driving force behind Little Wolf and The Willow owner Maddie Resmer. 

Resmer is a Two-Spirit mixed-Algonquin artist from Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation and the Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabe First Nation. They started learning and making on their own at first. “I grew up as an urban Indigenous person,” said Resmer. “So growing up, I didn’t feel much of a connection to the Indigenous community that was around me.”

At first, Resmer began making pieces for their regalia and as gifts for family. “It takes a lot to create and is therefore usually quite expensive – for good reason. As a kid in high school who could not really afford to buy a regalia set, I learned how to do things myself.”

Resmer’s family are traditional canoe builders and craftspeople, which they said helped them learn their craft. They started posting photos of their pieces on social media, which led to their first sales in 2019. At the time, Resmer was a student in university who was also dealing with their father’s cancer diagnosis. “It was a really stressful time,” said Resmer. “In addition to creating these pieces as a way of reconnecting with my culture that I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up with, it was also a way for me to navigate the stress of that and to keep my mind off of all of the bad that was kind of going on around me at the time.”

Little Wolf and The Willow launched their online store in March 2020 and has continued to grow and reach new customers across Turtle Island. Resmer creates necklaces, rings, patches, and other crafts that they describe as wearable acts of Indigenous resilience. “I’ve got some of my pieces in all provinces in Canada and I think I’m halfway to all the states,” said Resmer. “I love keeping track of it on a map. It’s just so amazing for me to see how real things that I create can travel the world.”

Creating and selling their crafts does more than connect Resmer with their own culture and language. “What’s really amazing is I’ve been able to connect with Indigenous folks from all over and it’s just a really beautiful connection to make. It’s so incredible that we’re able to do these trades in 2021 where we can connect these two nations that are so far apart in such a meaningful way.” 

They recently purchased a pair of earrings from a maker in Arizona and was amazed at the interaction. “I thanked them in Anishinaabe and they thanked me in their language and it was a really touching moment. I’m really grateful that this business has allowed me to deepen those connections because it’s so important and educational for me to branch out and learn about other folks.”

Morningstar Designs and Luke Swinson Art

If you stroll or bike around Waterloo Region, you’ve likely seen the beautiful artwork of Alanah Astehtsi Otsistohkwa (Morningstar) Jewell and Luke Swinson in murals, public art, and even one of the Art Fresco tables.

Jewell is a mixed French-First Nations artist and is Bear Clan from Oneida Nation of the Thames. Swinson has Anishinaabe roots and is a member of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.

Jewell said she finds her inspiration in the world of other Indigenous artists, the exploration of their cultures and histories, and by Creation. “Luke and I spend a lot of time adventuring outside and having long conversations about art, our ideas and things that excite us,” said Jewell. “So days filled with art, culture and exploring the land often lead to a lot of creativity. I also find inspiration from events that bring people together, whether it’s celebration or grief, I often try to create a visual representation and identity.”

 

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A post shared by Luke Swinson (@lukeswinsonart)

Both Jewell and Swinson sell their work during quarterly print sales, usually at the start of new seasons in September, December, March, and June. “When we finish a print sale, we take time off and then create new work and start new projects. This really works for us because we feel like we can be intentional with our time and be in the right headspace to be creative.”

Like Wilhelm and Resmer, Jewell said she is inspired to use her craft to create connections to her community, culture, and people. Many of her pieces use animals and plant life to depict a connection to the land. “Artists have the ability to translate feelings and experiences and help people feel seen,” said Jewell. “Many Indigenous people, including urban Indigenous youth, struggle to feel seen in the city, so I’m always hoping that my art helps bridge that connection between self and community.”

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Discover more on about these artists and makers on their online stores:

Mulberry Design – https://www.mulberrydesign.ca 

Little Wolf and The Willow – https://littlewolfandthewillow.com 

Morningstar Designs – https://morningstardesigns.ca 

Luke Swinson Art – https://lukeswinsonart.com 

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Alex Kinsella is a freelance writer and marketer based in Waterloo Region. He’s the guy behind TL;WR – Waterloo Region’s weekly events newsletter. He’s worked with some of Canada’s most well-known tech companies in roles including customer success, development, product management, PR, social media and marketing.

Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, Grand Magazine, Community Edition and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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