How These Indigenous Women Are Reclaiming Their Culture
On the front lines of change for their communities, four trailblazers are honouring the legacy of Inuit.
by : Camille Cardin-Goyer- Jan 28th, 2022
OUMAYMA B. TANFOUS
Model Willow Allen, designer Victoria Kakuktinniq, throat singer and TikToker Shina Novalinga and actor Marika Sila have more in common than a large following. The Inuit tastemakers—all dedicated advocates for Indigenous peoples—are leveraging their platforms to help shape the Canada of tomorrow. In partnership with Canada Goose, the four women are highlighting the need for more Indigenous role models and the importance of breaking down barriers for future generations and challenging those in power to bring their reconciliation commitments to life. As part of Project Atigi (“atigi” is Inuktitut for “parka”), Canada Goose’s social-entrepreneurship initiative, the brand commissioned Inuit designers—descendants of the original parka makers—across Inuit Nunangat (Canada’s four Inuit regions) to create bespoke jackets using traditional skills and designs, the proceeds of which will go to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a non-profit working to improve Inuit health and well-being. Kakuktinniq was a guest designer for Project Atigi’s latest capsule collection, and it’s modelled by Allen, Novalinga and Sila. So whether they are on a film set, strutting the runway, showing at fashion week or educating on TikTok, these women are bringing the stories of their people to life—a testimony to Indigenous resilience in the face of ongoing adversity.
Victoria KakuktinniqOUMAYMA B. TANFOUS, Top and pants (Kakuktinniq’s own)
Born and raised in the remote community of Rankin Inlet, Nvt., Victoria Kakuktinniq has always been deeply immersed in Inuit culture. She grew up surrounded by family, friends and neighbours who all shared in the task of raising her. “To Inuit, the words ‘community’ and ‘family’ are interchangeable,” says the Nunavummiut. “We help one another by supporting and uplifting one another, by learning through observation and mentorship and by caring for others.”
Kakuktinniq has been inspired by the strong women in her life, many of whom were seamstresses. She witnessed from a young age how her mother, grandmother and sister all relied on traditional Inuit sewing skills, passed down through the generations, to make cold-weather garments. Her haute-couture work presented at Paris and New York fashion weeks was directly inspired by her grandmother’s garments. But for the designer and creator of Victoria’s Arctic Fashion (V.A.F.), making her way to some of the world’s biggest fashion gigs has been no easy feat. “Starting out was very difficult,” she says. “The cost of bringing materials and machinery to Nunavut is significant; they must be brought in via either cargo plane or sealift, and the expense is astronomical.” Rent for commercial space in the North is also high—eight years into running V.A.F., Kakuktinniq has had to move shop three times in three different communities, often shifting plans to keep up with operating costs.
But thanks to the support of her community, Kakuktinniq’s business has been thriving, both in the North and on social media, leading her to partner with Canada Goose. “It’s so empowering for me, my community and other Inuit women,” she says. “There is something so intimate and beautiful about truly embracing and celebrating who we are and where we come from and carrying forward the traditions of our people.”
Shina NovalingaOUMAYMA B. TANFOUS, Top (Isa Boulder) and headpiece and necklace (Novalinga’s own)
You’ve likely come across Inuk throat singer Shina Novalinga on TikTok performing traditional duets with her mother or imitating sounds of nature and animals in harmonious rhythms. Born in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, and raised in Montreal, the 23-year-old has garnered an impressive following of more than 3.7 million on TikTok since posting her first video almost two years ago. The college student has been using the app to educate fans about the history of Indigenous peoples and the Inuit way of life by sharing snackable clips, answering questions and promoting traditional regalia made by local Inuit creators.
But being a public figure has had its challenges. “I deal with a lot of discriminatory comments, which weigh on my mental health,” admits Novalinga. “I’ve learned that in order to make change, I have to look past those [comments] and focus on the positive—the love and support that I’m also getting.” By “change,” she means helping create a safe space where every Indigenous community feels represented and valued. “It’s fundamental that people know that they’re capable of reaching any goal they set for themselves, and this starts with feeling included and cared for by society.”
Growing up, Novalinga didn’t feel there was such a space for her to become a successful Indigenous woman. “I felt like no one cared,” she says. “But things are slowly starting to change, and I want to use my voice to amplify and accelerate that change.” Novalinga has come to realize that success ultimately comes from loving yourself and being proud of who you are. “Reclaiming our culture, traditions and values requires hard work,” she says. “But it’s by fully realizing who we are that we’ll break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.”
Willow AllenOUMAYMA B. TANFOUS, Dress (3_3_4_7) and earrings (Marni, at Holt Renfrew)
Willow Allen grew up in Inuvik, NWT, a small Arctic community where locals experience an average of 30 days of polar night every winter. “I was raised in both worlds,” says the 23-year-old Inuvialuk model. “I learned to live off the land at my family’s bush camp, hunting and trapping the way my ancestors did and being told traditional stories by my parents, and attended school and university in Saskatchewan.” While initially her goal was to follow in her mother’s footsteps and go into social work, Allen was launched into an unexpected modelling career after being spotted by an agency on social media a couple of years ago.
“It has been so empowering to represent the beauty and culture of my people,” she says. “[With] this platform, I’m hoping to inspire younger generations and raise awareness about the issues that Indigenous peoples face.” One of these issues is the intergenerational trauma that’s a result of residential schools; it’s what prompted Allen’s dream to work in mental health in her community of just under 3,400. “We will not forget the children who never made it back home, the survivors and their descendants who are hurting or the attempts to erase Indigenous culture in the name of assimilation.”
For Allen, there’s still a long way to go on the path to reconciliation. “Having a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a start,” she says. “Beginning to search residential-school sites for unmarked graves is a start. Acknowledging that Indigenous women and girls are missing is a start. Canada is just starting.” Proudly embracing Inuit culture is Allen’s way of calling for more significant change, which will lend to the healing of her people. “I will never change myself or my image because I know my strength comes from my identity as an Inuvialuk woman,” she says. “Wear your traditional dress with pride, learn your language and speak to your elders. We are strong, we are resilient and we are Indigenous.”
Marika SilaOUMAYMA B. TANFOUS, Sweater and pants (Rick Owens) and earrings (Sila’s own)
Badass multi-hyphenate Marika Sila is a Yellowknife-born Inuvialuk actor, influencer and activist who specializes in stunts and special skills for TV and film (nunchaku, staff and sword handling, hoop dancing and fire spinning). Growing up, Sila didn’t have role models who looked like her and were achieving their dreams—aside from her older brother, two-time Olympic cross-country skier Jesse Cockney. But that didn’t stop her from making her way onto the big screen.
Today, she’s all about increasing opportunity for Indigenous youth by pressuring the Canadian government to stand by its commitment to improve diversity in the mainstream media and within leadership positions in the corporate world, which she believes is an essential step toward reconciliation. “Government officials and the general public need to be seeking knowledge and guidance directly from Indigenous peoples,” says Sila, who’s currently producing her first documentary film, What’s Next? On Canada’s RedPath to Reconciliation.
Following the recent discoveries of residential-school gravesites, Sila made it a goal to educate the public about the long-term effects of the Indian residential-school system and how we can help pave the way for reconciliation. In 2022, she plans to travel across the country and talk to Indigenous elders, community leaders and influencers to get a sense of what they think needs to happen for Canada to move forward in the best possible way. “I want to create a hub where Canadians can learn about our country’s history and relationship with Indigenous peoples,” says Sila. “I believe that where there is understanding, there is compassion, and racism dies in the face of compassion.”
Find the full story in the February-March issue of ELLE Canada — out on newsstands and on Apple News+ January 31. You can also subscribe for the latest in fashion, beauty and culture.
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