All photos C/O Natasha Davey
The Wiiji’iwe Collective supports Indigenous artists by breaking down accessibility barriers
By: Subin Park, A&C Reporter
“Going together with the people”. Although not a direct translation, it closely describes the meaning behind Natasha Davey’s the Wiiji’iwe Collective. The Wiiji’iwe Collective is an Instagram-based shop that carries beaded accessories, moccasins, artwork and other hand-made items by Indigenous artists from Northern Ontario.
The shop’s story began in 2014, when Davey started her teaching career working with Grade 7 and 8 students in Aroland, a northern First Nations community. As a non-Indigenous person herself, the opportunity to teach there for three years allowed her to gain a deeper understanding of the Indigenous community and develop life-long friendships, many of which were with Indigenous artists.
“I went [to Aroland] without knowing what the North was and with little understanding of the Indigenous people in Canada,” explained Davey.
After returning from Aroland, she worked as a teacher development manager for Teach for Canada, a non-profit organization supporting teachers working in northern First Nations communities.
When Davey returned to her home in Hamilton, she missed her friends in the northern community very much. She also had people inquire about where to get similar beaded accessories and moccasins she owned. Recognizing the demand for Indigenous art and artifacts as well as the difficulty of connecting with Indigenous artists living in remote reserves, Davey was inspired to create The Wiiji’iwe Collective.
“I [want it] to be known that, from this collective, I’m not profiting from the Indigenous community and I’m really doing it to support the Indigenous artists who are in remote northern places, who don’t have as much exposure as [they would] in southern Ontario,” explained Davey.
Davey launched the collective last year in consultation with Elders and friends in the Indigenous community. On Nov. 7, the collective will celebrate its one year anniversary. It was important for her to discuss the project idea with Indigenous members and gather their input as she was conscious of her place as an ally and wanted to hold space for the Indigenous community. In support of Davey, two of the Elders she consulted with gifted her the name Wiiji’iwe for the project.
“When I was thinking about [starting the Wiiji’iwe Collective], I wanted to do it in a good way. Because I am not Indigenous myself, I recognize myself as an Indigenous ally. So when starting it, I didn’t want to go about things without consulting the Elders and my friends in the Indigenous community,” said Davey.
Currently, Davey runs the Wiiji’iwe Collective from her home office space while still working as a teacher at the Halton Catholic School Board. She sources her inventory directly from Indigenous artists who she knows from her time working in northern First Nations communities or have been referred to by friends in the community. The collective includes work from many including artists, Elders, teachers, education assistants, students and even school bus drivers. The collective works with over 20 Indigenous artists.
Once Davey receives the items to her home in Hamilton, she repackages them, takes photos to post on the Instagram page and ships it out to customers. Pick-ups are also available in Hamilton from her home.
When purchasing new items from Indigenous artists, Davey often pays more than the rate of the artists to ensure fair, equitable wages.
According to a recent report based on data from Demographic Diversity of Artists in Canada in 2016, Indigenous artists make 68 cents for every dollar non-Indigenous artists make. This can be attributed to many systemic barriers and biases that pose serious limitations on the income and career growth of Indigenous artists and discourages youths from pursuing art.
To address this inequity, Davey uses the profit from the sales to raise money for the collective’s Indigenous Youth Artists Fund.
“Part of the idea behind Wiiji’iwe is to support aspiring Indigenous youth who want to start beading, start making moccasins or maybe do art, but may not have the funds to get up and going,” said Davey.
A key aspect of the fund is that it is hassle-free. Davey noted although many grants are available for Indigenous youths, they often require an overwhelming number of forms and information to be uploaded in English which can be a barrier. Interested applicants can message the Wiiji’iwe Collective on Instagram and fill out a Google form to access the fund.
One of Davey’s favourite aspects of running the collective is sharing the stories behind the pieces and the artists. Recently, the Wiiji’iwe Collective had a collaboration event with MADabolic Burlington, Power Yoga Canada Burlington and Lululemon Mapleview called ReconciliACTION. It discussed the purpose of truth and reconciliation, recognized Indigenous communities and encouraged engagement in physical wellness activities. There, she was able to share and feature some of the artists and their works.
“It’s really about bringing the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communit[ies] together even though many of the artists are not always here. But I always tell [the artists] stories or tell them the pieces have sold right away and they’re so happy,” said Davey.
She is also keen on maintaining transparency and sharing the operation behind the business. A common question she receives is whether a non-Indigenous person can buy from the shop. Davey has consulted with many members in the Indigenous community to answer this question, including Elders, who have shared that as long as it is not appropriating Indigenous culture and the non-Indigenous person remains respectful, it is okay. For items with a ceremonial purpose, the artists will always indicate it.
“The artists know I’m not Indigenous and these items are being sold to everyone. The Elders and community also know and want people to support their work and their art,” said Davey.
Soon, the Wiiji’iwe Collective will have its own page on the Grandmothers Voice’s website and some of their items will also be available at Grandmothers Voice’s office space. With their support and guidance, Davey hopes to eventually open a Shopify account and ultimately help the artists to open their own websites as well to help them gain more autonomy in selling and promoting their work.
“I want to support the artists to be autonomous, build their capacity, build understanding about shipping, receiving and social media and promoting themselves so they can eventually go off on their own and have their own platform . . . For now, I’m happy to support them and show them there’s a lot of worth in the work they do and people are interested in it,” said Davey.
The Wiiji’iwe Collective is a place of sharing, appreciating, supporting and celebrating Indigenous art and creators. Whether you are Indigenous, non-Indigenous, wanting to feature your work, connect Indigenous artists or curious about Indigenous art and how to support Indigenous artists, the collective welcomes all students to reach out and go together with the Indigenous community.
The items listed on the page can be purchased by completing a Google form linked in the shop’s bio.