Jessica Day is Anishinaabekwe from Anemki Wajiw and member of Fort William First Nation. Her traditional name is Saagaate, which loosely translates to sun rays. She is a woman of many talents – shown notably in her beadwork and her beautifully handcrafted jingle dresses— featured below.
There’s a certain comfort to watching her each week at bead group, calmly chipping away at her beading/sewing projects. She carries the careful constructs of her traditional garments with great honour, but it is when she wears them in dance that allows her to celebrate her culture with utmost respect and meaning.
With or without knowing, you can tell just by looking at her work how much care and effort goes into each of her unique pieces. One of the things that I admire about Jessica, and many other aboriginal youth, is her ability to combine her traditional skills and knowledge into her modern day garments and lifestyle.
Last weekend Jessica and I did a photoshoot at the Governor’s House, located on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. The castle-like building is ‘crown’ owned and is the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor of B.C as well as the Canadian monarch.
The purpose of the photoshoot was not only to portray Jessica appropriately and authentically adorned in her traditional regalia, but to also allow her engagement in a controversial space that makes it uncomfortable to express or embody Indigenous identities. Although we had quite a few confused stares, and even a few glares, Jessica stood strong and proud—wearing her jingle dress and beaded accessories in a space historically rooted and celebrated by Indigenous peoples, yet currently occupied by settler and colonial structures.
After the photoshoot, I asked Jessica about her feelings of openly showcasing her identity. Naturally, she stood out like a sore thumb. Wearing her status in this particular space not only made her awkwardly stand out, but the feeling of standing alone was even greater. The anxiety of being curiously watched by onlookers, as if she were a living artifact for their viewing pleasure was apparent in many ways. Their gaze while wearing what’s viewed in her culture as honouring, made her feel as if she was completely out of the ordinary and on display. A lot of the times when Indigenous people wear their identity in public, people assume they are merely in a costume – putting the image and perception of us and our culture as if we are thing of the past.
Surely there were a few that approached her to compliment and acknowledge the beauty of her work, however Jessica has expressed that she by no means expects recognition or validation of her talents. What I love most about her work is that it runs deeper than creating something ‘simply beautiful’. When wearing her work, she does it for prayer and for her people. Generally, woman would construct their own regalia as a reflection of themselves, or for family. It is her way of carrying on deep rooted traditions and to celebrate cultural enrichment. Within these photos, is a silent yet strong statement – that our identity should no longer be repressed and that yes, our culture and practices are very much still alive!
– caroline blechert