Woman at centre of social media storm says no one told her how to dress

Facebook commentators blasted a government campaign as racist, but the woman at the heart of it says the conversation was misinformed from the start.

'I think that it was definitely taken out of context and people are jumping to conclusions'

Neegann Aaswaakshin is the Indigenous lawyer whose image provoked social media outrage. (Submitted by Neegann Aaswaakshin)

The woman at the centre of a social media storm surrounding the use of her image says the conversation was misinformed from the start.

A Facebook user noted the woman's appearance in a Government of Canada advertising campaign bore a resemblance to the Disney cartoon character Pocahontas. She and others were quick to challenge what they saw as racist stereotyping of Indigenous people.

Neegann Aaswaakshin — Saulteaux of the Anishinaabe Nation and member of the Fishing Lake First Nation — is a lawyer who has worked on Indigenous policy and law with many organizations and governments, including the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the Native Women's Society of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General.

She was also the model involved. No one told her how to dress.

'I was just being myself'

Aaswaakshin has worked as a freelance model since she was a teenager, so when she was approached by an Indigenous-owned communications company in Ottawa to be part of a photo shoot for an Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada campaign, she agreed.

She arrived at the photo shoot with clothing and jewelry options to match different coloured backgrounds.

"I chose all of my own jewelry and wardrobe. I was not intending to look like any character," Aaswaakshin said. "I was just being myself. Anyone who knows me knows that's how I like to dress. I like to wear turquoise jewelry from time to time."

An image of the poster in question that was posted to Facebook. The 'wtfs' in white were not on the original poster. (Alyssa Jean/Facebook)

She said conversations about stereotypes are important, especially in light of the hurt caused by "some of the stereotypes and imagery used to depict Indigenous people in the media such as Pocahontas [and] the Redskins sport logo."

"But that was definitely not the spirit and intent of this campaign and this project. I think that it was definitely taken out of context and people are jumping to conclusions."

She said comments on Facebook were hurtful, in part because they assumed she and others involved set out to mimic a cartoon character, or were insensitive to racial stereotypes.

"The image was really, truly me," Aaswaakshin said.  "I can't change the way I look, I can't make myself look less like a cartoon of Pocahontas. I can't make myself look any different than the way I do.

"The way I look in the poster is the way I look, what I looked like at the time, and what I look like now."

'Worth having a conversation'

The image was also criticized for the inclusion of wildlife — a bison, eagle, wolf and bear — potentially excluding what historian Crystal Fraser said was the "growing urban population of Indigenous people who don't really foster this connection to the land and to wildlife anymore."

Aaswaakshin disagrees that the animals are a form of stereotyping, but said their inclusion was off-putting at first. In the end, she said she was "pleased to see the blending of the imagery and I think it's just a reminder of who we are and where we come from."

But she doesn't dismiss concerns surrounding the image — the online debate showed the image affected a lot of people.

"It was worth having a conversation but where it stops being a conversation and stops being kind and starts accusing and launching attacks at people and organizations and governments is not productive."

Kindness lacking

She points to teachings she inherited from her community which place kindness in high regard, something she did not see much of in the online criticism.

"It's OK to talk to each other and challenge each other but it needs to be done with kindness," Aaswaakshin said.

"It's important for people to remember that everybody is going through different levels of trauma and we need to communicate with ourselves in a kind way.

"This brought up an important conversation and I think it just needs to be a kind conversation where we hear all sides of the story and not attack and launch accusations at each other.

"That's the way I was raised, that's the way my community raised me."

Images of Aaswaakshin and others were removed from the government website, but she said she hopes the government will choose to display the poster and all the campaign imagery.

"I would be very happy to see that," Aaswaakshin said.

"I think it was a respectful campaign that did not perpetuate any stereotypes. I think it was an accurate portrayal of what our people look like today."

With files from Juanita Taylor